Friday, 27 August 2010

'Corpse Candles' - the scent of death.

In 1837 a new type of candle became available - the 'Composition Candle.' - Burning cleanly, but a similar cost as inferior tallow candles, they became an overnight success. So why then, did they acquire the nickname 'Corpse Candles'?
They were created by a French scientist who separated tallow into two parts; one liquid, and one solid which he called 'stearine.' The stearine had a higher melting point than crude tallow and a secret ingredient prevented the candles becoming brittle. The Frenchman sold his 'secret' recipe to English manufacturers and for two years, 1835-36 they were wildly successful...until a English chemist extinguished his candle one night and smelt an alarming odour....

Mr Everitt, Professor of Chemistry noted an 'Abominable stinking smell like garlic,' the characteristic smell given off by arsenical vapours. The Westminster Medical Society investigated and confirmed the 'secret' ingredient to be arsenic; odourless while the candle burnt but released when the candle was extinguished and the wick smouldering The Society put forward a chilling scenario:
'Let us suppose London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane were lighted with stearine candles [each chandelier held 152 tapers]...608 grains of arsenious acid would be vaporised and floating in the air during the performance.'

Warnings against using the 'Corpse Candles' were posted in the press. However unscrupulous manufacturers with large stocks, marketed their candles as 'pure wax.' In 1837 new companies such as 'Pearl Wax Lights' guaranteed their products 'solemnly and unequivocably'  arsenic free gained the public's confidence, especially when it was discovered simple chalk was just as effective at preventing brittleness.
Postcript - having not learnt lessons from the past, the arsenic problem recurred in 1859...only this time the cause was a colouring - Scheele's Green (the key ingredient was arsenic), which gave a bright vibrant green colour...the fashion of the day.

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