In America's colonial period, candles were more than just a decoration -- they were a necessity. Made primarily of beef fat tallow melted in boiling water, then re-hardened around a candle rod and protruding wick, colonial candles were the only light source once the sun went down. This was particularly critical in winter, with its reduced daylight, and so autumn became the traditional time for stockpiling candles to last through that cold, dark stretch of the year.
Making colonial candles was an arduous and time-consuming task, however, especially when the maker had to remain bent over an iron kettle of boiling water for hours while dipping candle rods into the mixture. The arrival of iron or pewter molds was a distinct improvement, allowing the molten wax to harden on its own and eliminating a step in the process. The problem with tallow candles was the smell they gave off, along with the smoke that stained walls over time.
Beeswax candles, developed in Europe, provided light without the unpleasant side effects of tallow, but they came with a side effect of their own -- price, which kept them out of the homes of all but the most well-heeled in the Colonies, and restricted their use largely to religious ceremonies. The grayish-green berries of the bayberry plant smelled sweet, were smokeless, and relatively inexpensive. The problem in their case was the difficulty of converting the berries into wax.
It wasn't until the tail end of the 1700s that a practical new candle material was developed from an unlikely source, the crystallized oil from sperm whales. Called spermaceti, it was odorless, burned brighter than the tallow candles and was less likely to melt in summer heat. Soon, that became the candle of choice. So evenly did these colonial candles burn that they were occasionally used to tell time, the shrinking of the candle compared to markings on the candle rod.
Today's candles are made from beeswax or paraffin, although soy candles are becoming more trendy. Unlike colonial candles, they also come in an almost infinite variety of fragrances. Antique stores that advertise "colonial candles" are generally referring to the accouterments of candlelight -- candle holders, candle molds and some of the fixtures used to display candles.