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St. Louis Regional history comes alive in this joint production by KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. Stories of our past are connected with the present in these well researched and entertaining short presentations about the people, places, and events that have shaped who we are and who we are becoming. 

Dec 2, 2022

There are many modern conveniences that we take for granted. One of those is Light. Today, for most of us, we simply turn on a light switch and we have all the illumination we need. But it wasn’t always so. In the past the process of lighting a space could be smelly, dangerous, and time consuming. Just press play to hear the whole story. ———

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I’m Andrew Wanko, Public Historian of the Missouri Historical Society, and Here’s History on 88-one, KDHX. ———

Every time one of the Missouri Historical Society curators shows me something new from our artifact collections, I get the same feeling. For all I know about the lives of past generations of St. Louisans, there is always more to uncover. Lately it happened when I got to see a tin candle mold, once used by a St. Louisan of the early 1800s to provide a homemade source of light after dark. ———

While the wealthiest early 1800s St. Louisans could afford the whale oil candles brought into town on riverboats, most residents made their own candles at home using animal fat. The candlemaker began by simmering a cauldron of meat and water over an open fire for hours. As the water evaporated, it left behind a floating layer of liquified fat, called “tallow.” ———

With the fuel source prepared, the candlemaker turned to a tall and narrow metal candle mold with anywhere from two to twelve openings. String wicks were tied to a rod above and left to dangle in the mold’s openings, and then the scorching hot tallow was skimmed from the pot and poured in. It was a delicate process - the candle mold’s openings were barely an inch wide, and burns or accidental housefires were a constant risk. After a few hours of cooling, the hardened tallow candles could be carefully wiggled out of the mold and set aside to use. ———

Tallow candles went rancid quickly and usually burned down in just a few hours, so candle making was a weekly chore for many St. Louisans. Tallow candles also had the downsides of smelling like burnt meat and producing thick clouds of black smoke, but those inconveniences probably seemed minor to the alternative of spending your evenings sitting in the dark. ———

History gives us many things, including reasons to be grateful. Next time you’re at the store, standing beneath hundreds of light bulbs and picking out a new vanilla or lavender candle just for fun, be thankful that the smells, mess, and danger of making your own source of light are concerns for St. Louisans of the past. ———

Here’s history is a joint production of the Missouri Historical Society and KDHX. I’m Andrew Wanko and this is 88.1 KDHX St. Louis. ———