Thursday, December 28, 2017

candle studies: bayberry wax (a.k.a. tallow), candlefish, candle nut, soy (in other words, bayberry part 2)

The aroma of natural bayberry wax, or tallow, I can’t decide which to call it, is, in order of impression as I smell raw hunks of it:
- clean
- natural
- subtle
- softly rich
- quietly deep
- old-fashioned
- just like that tea Amy used to bring me. (This was about 15 years ago. Amy and I were co-workers. She got the tea at a store in her neighborhood. We called it the smoky campfire tea in deference to my inability to ever remember its non-English name. It came in a little brown paper bag. Dry, the tea was a mat of leaves and twigs and bark and flowers and I don’t know what all, dark brown and black, thick, spongy, organic. Steeping in my mug it was smoky brown, and to my workday it brought an aroma so wonderfully wild, like the whisper of a campfire surrounded by pines.)
Once made into a candle and lit, the smell of Christmas hit. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, there must have been a Christmastime bayberry candle or two.

Bayberry tallow feels harder than beeswax and the chunks I bought are dusty with bloom. Its color is olive green. Molded into a candle it feels smooth and just ever so slightly greasy.

Like most candles it burns with a marvelous light. Unlike most candles, a clean woodsy scent wafts about. I’m tempted to say the flame is bright and rich—and again, clean—but perhaps I should restrain from hyperbole, or redundancy. After all, what candlelight isn’t lovely?
Quite recently figures have been furnished by an eminent gas expert, showing that candles give the strongest light through gloom and fogs; … (From “A ‘Light’ Industry:—Candle Making,” by F. A. Field, in the January 1902 The Idler.)
I burned a bayberry votive and a beeswax votive in glass cups side by side. For aroma and light, it is a great combination, but, I admit, the bayberry held more intrigue. Although lively, its flame was steadier, more even. The top quarter-inch or so of the wax liquefied. I suppose that is due to bayberry’s lower melting point. Beeswax melts around 146 degrees Fahrenheit; bayberry at about 118. But according to Albin H. Warth in The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes, bayberry’s melting point rises as it ages. The example given was four-month-old wax with a melting point near 127 degrees. I haven’t read of this elsewhere. In The Complete Technology Book on Wax and Polishes the melting point for bayberry is given as a range between 102-120 with no explanation provided. Warth points out that no other wax is known to have this quality of a changing melting point, but it made me think of the question I have been asked occasionally about aged beeswax and doesn’t it burn better? But a higher melting point doesn’t necessarily translate to a better burn.

Another bayberry oddity I read about was in Customs and Fashions in Old New England (Earle, 1893). The quote is attributed to a Robert Beverly, 1705:
“ … neither does the snuff of these ever offend the smell, like that of a tallow candle; but, instead of being disagreeable, if an accident puts a candle out, it yields a pleasant fragrancy to all that are in the room; insomuch that nice people often put them out on purpose to have the incense of the expiring snuff.”
Being a nice person, I put out my bayberry candle on purpose, discovering Mr. Beverly was right. What a pleasant after-aroma! And then I did that trick of holding a lit match in the smoke an inch or so above the wick, thus relighting the candle.

Still another oddity is the fact that technically bayberry wax is a tallow. For clarification or muddification (best to be prepared for either) we turn to excerpts from The New World Family Encyclopedia (1954).

WAX, a solid organic substance composed of esters of higher alcohols and fatty acids. Thus, they are similar to fats but contain the alcohol group rather than the glyceryl (see Fats).

TALLOW, the product extracted or rendered from the solid fat, or “suet,” of cattle, sheep, goats, or horses. It is made up largely of olein, stearin, and palmitin oils. … Vegetable tallow is a fat obtained from plants … The fruit and bark of the tallow shrub, the bayberry, yield a fat.

CANDLEBERRY or Bayberry, a small tree native to the eastern part of North America, but most abundant in the southern part of the U.S. … The fruit consists of small berries, which, when ripe, are covered with a greenish-white wax, known as bayberry tallow. Four or five pounds of this product is obtained from a bushel of berries. It is used for candles which burn slowly and emit a pleasant odor …
Curiosity compels us to read the next entry.
CANDLEFISH … A rude light is obtained by drawing a piece of rush pith through the fish …
And then
CANDLE NUT … natives … in some localities burn the kernels as torches …
Under the listing for myrtle, which is the plant group the bayberry shrub (or small tree) belongs to, there is no mention of wax, tallow, candles, or, for that matter, Christmas legends (see Part 1). We do find dysentery and “diarrhoea.”
MYRTLE, a genus of plants which are classed as a suborder of the Myrtaceae. … Most species bear black berries with a pleasant, spicy odor. They are used in the preparation of medicine for dysentery, rheumatism, diarrhoea, and internal ulcers. …
Reading further into the wax entry, we learn that wax may be vegetable, animal, or mineral in origin, and that
synthetic waxes have been obtained in the synthesis of liquid fuels by the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, in which hydrogen and carbon monoxide are reacted over a catalyst. …
This caught my eye because soy wax is a product of hydrogenation, produced by hydrogenating the oil that is squished out of the soybean, and this hydrogenation requires a catalyst, which I understand to be a substance that enables other substances to combine to become a new substance. For soybean oil and hydrogen the most common catalyst I have read of is copper.

For those who enjoy semantics, this makes soy wax interesting. If it must go through a process such as hydrogenation, can it truly be called, as it is, a natural wax? Warth includes it as such, stating: “ … wax from the winterizing of soybean oil … amounts to about 0.002 per cent of the original oil.” So a minute amount of wax does seem to occur naturally in the soybean. But this is not the current-day product we call soy wax.

I have read that soy wax was invented in the 1990s. But apparently folks were experimenting with soybean oil and hydrogenation well before then. Warth refers to a paper written in 1934:
In the high-pressure hydrogenation of soybean oil Shinosaki and Kubo125 found that at 350° an almost entirely wax-like substance was formed. … The catalyst used in the hydrogenation was copper carbonate on infusorial earth … ”
Soy wax is now fairly ubiquitous in the candle market; it is plentiful and inexpensive. The soybean crop in the U.S. is larger than all others but corn, and a July 2017 article on leads with “The world’s soybean crop has grown by leaps and bounds since 1990, growing 231%.” A quick search online shows that to the candlemaker many different soy wax formulations are available. (And I have read that the formulas are highly secret!) One formula will work better in containers, another for molded pillars, and another will prove superior for holding your additives, your color, your scent.

By contrast, bayberry wax can be hard to find, is expensive, and it is what it is. It comes with its own essence.

In “Old New England,” Alice Morse Earle writes:

Miss Morse in 1873.
Bayberry wax was a standard farm production wherever bayberries grew, and was advertised in New England papers until this century. I entered within a year a single-storied house a few miles from Plymouth Rock, where an aged descendant of the Pilgrims earns her scanty spending-money by making “bayberry taller,” and bought a cake and candles of the wax, made in precisely the method of her ancestors; and I too can add my evidence as to the pure, spicy perfume of this New England incense.

Maybe someday I will come across some bayberry bushes in a garden, in the wild, in an abandoned farm field. If I do, I hope it is autumn, when the berries are ripe and covered in tallow. I will pick the berries, boil them in water, get me some wax, make me a candle or two.


For the record, the bayberry votive burned for 12 hours leaving an amazingly clean cup behind. The beeswax votive burned a few hours more, leaving some wax behind. In my experience, sometimes a beeswax votive leaves nothing behind, sometimes something.