Sunday, December 17, 2017

candle studies: the wax within

Who knew wax was so interesting?

I’ve just finished Chapter 3 of The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes, by Albin H. Warth, published in 1947 by Reinhold Publishing Corporation in New York. The chapter began with beeswax, which in many ways is the original wax, and continued through waxes gleaned from so many sources my mind reeled. And rocked. And rolled. Wax is not only secreted by or found in several insects, it is in many animals and plants as well, from mutton birds to dandelion roots. The mutton bird is a somewhat special case. In its stomach you find a liquid wax with “a ruby-red color and a not unpleasant fishy smell.”

Yes, there are liquid waxes.
Liquid waxes are those which are liquid at ordinary room temperature. They are on the boundary line between the vegetable oils and solid waxes in many of their physical and chemical constants, but differ from fatty oils since they are virtually free of triglycerides.
But mostly wax is solid at ordinary room temperature, and it turns up everywhere. Did you know mistletoe berries contain wax? (It makes me a trifle sad that when googling mistletoe wax what Google serves up are links to products concocted from standard types of wax saturated with various so-called holiday scents. Nice products, I suppose, but nothing to do with mistletoe wax.) And did you know that cranberries shed water due to the wax on their skin? How about sugar cane wax?
When made into a taper it burns with a fine white flame like spermaceti.
Sugar cane wax candles made in Natal were mostly used long ago in Russian Orthodox churches before the Russian Revolution. The revolution, it seems, not only killed religion but killed the sugar cane wax candle industry. (Spermaceti, as you may recall, is a wax found inside the head of a necessarily dead sperm whale.)

But by far the most interesting wax was the last discussed.
Adipocere wax is encountered in the decomposition of corpses in cemeteries.
Voilà! Who knew? I turned to my Webster’s New World Dictionary to make sure adipocere was a real thing. And it is. Between adios and adipose in plain English:
a fatty or waxy substance produced in decomposing dead bodies exposed to moisture
I googled adipocere just to see what that would dig up and found out that once—yes!—adipocere, a wax found in decomposing bodies, was made into candles. By mistake, it seems, but still. Imagine! The adipocere in a mummified Egyptian was mistaken for beeswax, and made into candles, and the candles were lit, and the candles burned, and it’s an interesting tale you may read in full here:
Click for an amazing story of when adipocere was mistaken for beeswax and made into candles which illuminated a lecture hall, or, The Case of Augustus’ Mummy
So, is it safe to say we all have a (potential) flame within?