One of the fond images of growing up on Martha's Vineyard were the scores of Bayberry bushes. I loved the scent of bayberry candles and often wanted to make candles from these little berries. Well, I never did get around to it and directions can be found on the web on how to do it. But this little article gives one a look back to earlier days and how such events were done and important for the family.
Excerpt from "The Friend" a Religious and Literary Journal ©1896
Candles in Old New England.
In these days of cheap and universal illumination, we almost forget the humble tallow dips of our grandmothers, and the way they were made. Candle making was the great household event of the late autumn or early winter, as soap making was of the spring. Careful and laborious preparations were made for this labor. The small wooden rods that had been laid up above th* great beams of the kitchen or thrust under the garret eaves since the previous year, were brought down stairs to the scene of the candle-dipping, and cotton wicks that had previously been cut and sometimes soaked in saltpeter were placed three or four inches apart the entire length of each rod. Usually eight or ten wicks were fastened to a rod. Sometimes " cattails" or flags were used instead of wooden rods. Then long poles were placed in a cool room, supported on two straight-backed chairs, and across these poles the bewicked rods were hung, like the rounds of a ladder. This work was all done on the day previous to that appointed for the candle dipping, and on the following morning all in the household were astir before dawn. The fire in the kitchen fireplace was piled with logs, the vast brass kettle brought out and hung on the crane, and partly filled with water. When this water was hot, cakes of tallow were broken up and thrown in to melt and float upon the top of the water.
This tallow had been collected for many months from the slaughtered animals by the careful housewife; and beeswax had also been saved from the hives to add to the candle stock to make harder candles; and, where bayberries grew, bayberry wax also. These fragrant little berries had been gathered through the late summer in vast stores, boiled with water till the melted bayberry wax had separated and risen to the top, whence it had been skimmed and allowed to harden into cakes, to save for the candle making. When the wax and tallow were well melted the kettle was taken from the crane and carried to the cooler room, or the cool end of the kitchen, where stood the chairs with the poles, rods, and wicks. Each wick was then dipped carefully into the melted tallow, and the rod placed again on the poles, care being taken that each wick hung straight and well away from the other. Each rod was taken in turn, and by the time the last wick had received its dipping the first wicks were cool and ready to receive a second coating of tallow by a second immersion. This tedious process was repeated again and again till the candles were as Inrge as desired. The candles were left to thoroughly harden over night, and in the morning were taken from the rods and packed away with satisfaction and pride for winter use.—A. M. Earle.