Object Matters An unperfumed history of the scented candle.

Object Matters An unperfumed history of the scented candle.

  • Words Rachel Connolly
  • Photograph Christian Møller Andersen. Courtesy of Menu

For a long time, candles were an essential light source, but they weren’t particularly appealing as objects. In many early civilizations, candles were made from animal fat and burned with greasy, sooty smoke and a pungent sour smell; during the Middle Ages, several European cities even banned making them because of their polluting qualities. Early Japanese candles were an exception: They were made by boiling the fruit from cinnamon trees, and produced a sweet smell. These were the earliest “scented” candles, but the pleasant odor was merely a side effect of the production process rather than an intended feature. For as long as candles were used primarily as a light source, they remained functional rather than decorative.

Thanks to scientific breakthroughs in the 18th century, part...

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