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candle / tallow

candle. A cylindrical body of tallow, wax, spermaceti, or similar substances, formed on a wick composed of linen or cotton threads, twisted loosely, used to furnish light. — Webster, 1882
tallow. The suet or fat of animals of the sheep and ox kinds, separated from membranous and fibrous matter by melting it down. — Webster, 1882
wick / candle-wicking. A spongy cord usually made of soft spun cotton threads, which by capillary attraction draws up the oil in lamps, the melted tallow or wax in candle, or other material used for illumination, in small successive portions, to be burned. — Webster, 1882

N. Morse has purchased the stock of goods lately owned by E.L. Meigs, in the village of Malone, where he would invite the attention of those wishing to purchase goods with cash or ready pay: Plain and striped muslins, large lot of shelf hardware, crushed and loaf sugar, pure white lead, sperm and tallow candles… – May 2, 1850, Frontier Palladium, Malone, New York


1. Rendered beef fat.

2. Simmer with salted water.

3. Fat rises; impurities sink.

4. Potato-secured wick.

5. Mold filled with tallow.

6. Candle light!

I cleaned out the freezer this weekend, and one of the things I had to either toss or deal with was a container of disks of rendered beef fat, or tallow. Angeline Wilder makes tallow candles in Farmer Boy (see Chapter 22, “Fall of the Year”), a project done at the end of butchering time after the other kitchen chores dealing with processing and storage of meat had been completed.

When the Wilders butchered their yearling beef, there was enough waste fat to supply tallow for a year’s worth of candles. Laura Ingalls Wilder simplifies the process in Farmer Boy, writing that Almanzo’s mother melted beef fat in a big kettle and poured the hot tallow into her candle molds. Mrs. Wilder may have the pieces of fat into smaller pieces as she added them to the kettle. Any bits of meat or gristle still attached will separate from the melting fat and settle to the bottom of the pot, and the fat will float above any water content not released as steam. Although Laura writes as if Angeline Wilder poured tallow into the candle mold directly from the large pot it was rendered in, she could have carefully ladled it into a separate vessel for ease in pouring, straining the fat through a sieve or layers of cheesecloth to remove any solid bits picked up by the ladle.

Making Tallow Candles. Purchase fresh beef fat from your butcher or collect pieces of fat cut from beef roasts in a container in the freezer until needed. What I started with today were disks of fat that had already been rendered once and had been stored in a 2-cup container in the freezer, and I didn’t think to photograph that step. Since there were some dark spots, I decided to go through the rendering process again. I knew I had 1-2 cups of rendered fat, so I added about a cup of salted water to a saucepan, then broke the fat into pieces and added them to the water. I brought it slowly to a boil, let it boil for about fifteen minutes, then both water and melted fat were poured through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into my 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup. After it had cooled a bit, I set it in the refrigerator. After the tallow hardened, I popped it out of the measuring cup with the tip of a knife, dried the damp side with a paper towel, and melted the tallow again over low heat in a clean pot. The salt water was discarded.

I only wanted to be able to say I’d made a tallow candle; I didn’t need enough candles to last a year, which would involve 50 pounds or more of waste fat before rendering. A wick was threaded through the hole in the bottom of my mold, then I pressed a piece of potato over it to hold it in place and keep the tallow from leaking around the wick as it cooled. After filling my 3-ounce candle mold, I poured the leftover tallow in a small mason jar with a weighted wick from the craft store. I put both candles in the refrigerator to harden. To remove the candle from the mold, I dipped it in a bowl of very hot water for a few seconds and it popped right out.

Tallow is a solid at room temperature; it melts at 108-113 degrees F. A commercial hardener (such as stearic acid) can be added to the melted tallow, or you can mix tallow with a wax that melts at a higher temperature, such as beeswax. Placing your candle in the freezer over night hardens the tallow and keeps it from melting so quickly when lit.



Candle Mold. Angeline Wilder’s tin 12-candle mold was described as standing on six feet, and as drawn by Garth Williams, this meant that the tin tubes weren’t secured to each other at the pointed end. My candle mold was purchased at Rocky Ridge Farm, and is of a typical configuration where the tubes are secured at both top (where the wax is poured into the mold) and bottom (which serves as a stable base). I don’t know if my mold was meant to be functional or not, but I’ve made beeswax candles in it many times and it’s worked well. I’ve also used it as a holder for 4 lit candles.

“From candle-light to candle-light.” In Farmer Boy, the expression is used to show that the Wilder family worked more hours than the sun shone in the sky, or from before dawn until after dusk, when an artificial source of light was needed in order to see to their work.

“Hold a candle to.” Used to express that two things are far apart in quality and any close examination would show this fact.

“Skin a flea for its hide and tallow.” An expression of extreme miserly-ness. A person who would take advantage of any situation in order to have more for themselves; a skinflint.

Tallow applied to boots / moccasins. In Farmer Boy (see Chapter 3, “Winter Night”), Almanzo rubbed melting tallow into his moccasins to soften and waterproof the leather; Royal gave his boots the same treatment. Thorough greasing with equal parts lard and tallow, or equal parts tallow and neat’s-foot oil were recommended treatment for leather in the late 1860s, according to the Malone Palladium, October 28, 1869.

Using a candle to test air quality in a well. Hand-digging a water well such as Charles Ingalls and others dug in Indian Territory was dangerous business. Not only might the sides cave in before they were shored up with rock, there was always the possibility that noxious gases would seep through the soil and collect at the bottom of the hold being dug, these being heavier than oxygen. Even carbon dioxide (expelled when breathing or the decaying of vegetable matter) will displace breathable air and collect at the bottom of the well. The common practice of lowering a candle into a well is a simple test for air quality, and as Charles Ingalls pointed out, should be done regularly, as accumulations of gasses was changeable and irregular. It was never safe to assume – as Mr. Scott did – that just because gas hadn’t been met with in the past, it would never accumulate there. Even igniting flammable gasses might remove them temporarily, only to seep in again over time.

Wick / candle-wicking. Wicking to be used in making candles was typically 100% braided cotton cordage of various weights, depending on the diameter of candles produced. As the cotton burned, the flame was fed by wax melted and drawn into the wick via capillary action. We don’t know if Angeline Wilder made or purchased the candle wicking she used to string her candle molds, but if you don’t want to purchase commercial wicking (sold in craft stores), you can use 100% cotton butcher’s twine. For a slower-burning wick, soak your twine overnight in a solution of 1 cup boiling water to which 1 tablespoon of salt and 3 tablespoons of Borax has been added. Allow the wicking to air dry before using.


candle (BW 6; FB 3, 7, 13, 18, 22, 26; LHP 12, 20; SSL 28; TLW 19; THGY 17; PG), see also button lamp, lantern
     candle-flame (FB 16)
     candle-light / candlelight (BW 6; FB 2, 3, 10, 11, 23; LHP 1, 12, 20, 21)
     Christmas tree (PG) – In Pioneer Girl, the Walnut Grove Christmas tree is said to be lit with candles, but no candles are mentioned in published On the Banks of Plum Creek.
     “from candle-light to candle-light” (FB 19)
     “hold a candle to” (FB 21; LTP 9)
     making / candle-making (FB 22)
     mold / candle-mold / tin candle-mold (FB 22)
     potato used in candle making (FB 22)
     tallow used to treat leather (FB 3)
     using a candle to test for good air in the well (LHP 12)
     waxy-white candles (FB 22)
     wick / candle-wicking (FB 17, 22)
tallow (FB 3, 22)
     “skin a flea for its hide and tallow” (FB 28)