To lots of kids, lighting up a room is a cinch. You flip a switch! And if that doesn’t work, you can always grab a flashlight, right?
Of course, for our colonial ancestors it was not so easy. Light, for example, was a very big deal! In the American colonies, kids were expected to help their parents collect and melt wax (from bee hives!), and then use it to make candles. Because candle molds were often expensive and hard to find, families commonly made “dipped” candles as a cheaper alternative. For these colonial Americans, this was important work. Try making these hand-dipped candles with your child and help bring history to life!
What You Need:
- Tall, skinny tin can
- Old saucepan (one you don't mind getting messy because wax can be very hard to clean up)
- Big chunk of wax, about one and a half pounds, or enough to fill at least 7 inches of the can you use. (Note: to be the most “colonial” we suggest beeswax, which also happens to smell wonderful and result in a buttery, soft texture. However, paraffin wax also works well, and to that you can add wax dye, available at most craft stores. Finally, you can also take a thrifty route, and melt old candle stubs. Just make sure you remove all traces of old, burnt wick).
- 15-inch lengths of candle wick (available at craft stores), or plain string if wicking isn’t easily available. (Note: with a group of kids, you can use one wick per kid; if you have just a few kids, you may want to have each kid make several candles. It’s up to you!)
- Small, straight sticks, about 12 inches long (you should have as many sticks as you plan to make candles)
What You Do:
- Fill your old pot with 2 inches of water. Then place a block of wax into your tall, skinny tin can, and place it in the center of your water bath.
- Bring the water to a boil and melt the wax until it is completely liquid.
- While the wax is melting, prepare your wicks. Tie one end of each wick around the end of a straight stick (about 6–12 inches) with a simple, secure knot.
- When the wax is all melted, you’re ready to start dipping your candle! Ideally, you'll take the project outside, but you can do the project indoors. If you decide to do it inside make sure you cover your entire work surface with some sort of protective layer, such as old newspapers.
- Now you and your child are ready to make some candles! Hold the end of the stick that does not have the wick attached, and dip the wick quickly in and out of the melted wax. You should see a thin coat of wax begin form on the wick. Make sure you keep the wick straight. Avoid leaving the wick in the wax for too long—it'll melt right off!
- Let the first layer of wax cool. If it's a hot day, you can keep a bucket of cool water nearby, and quickly dunk the candle in the water, then hang it on a rack for a few moments to let it dry completely. Or, if you’ve got a particularly enthusiastic kid, we suggest the “run and cool” method: set up a running point, such as an old porch chair, and have your child speedwalk around it, dangling the wick so that it cools as he moves, before returning to dip it again!
- Repeat the dipping process several times for one wick. Keep dipping and cooling until the candle is the size you like!
- You’ll notice that you’ll need many, many dips to make a whole candle. If the wax starts to harden in the can before you’re done, return the pot to the burner to melt it down again. If the wax starts to ball up at the end of the wick, use a pair of scissors to clip it a bit so that the bottom of the wick is even with the bottom of the candle, and return the extra blob to the melted wax can. These are all things that colonial families had to deal with every time they made their candles.
This activity is not only a great way to spend an afternoon with your child, but it's also a great way to teach your child a valuable social studies lesson!