A wick trimmer in a jester’s outfit trims the wicks of the footlight candles, each with its own screen. “Candle-Snuffer” woodcut, by an unknown artist, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1876.
A wick trimmer in a jester’s outfit trims the wicks of the footlight candles, each with its own screen. “Candle-Snuffer” woodcut, by an unknown artist, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1876. Wikimedia

In the days when candle wicks still had to be trimmed…

Until the first half of the 19th century, a pair of candle scissors was an essential tool in every home, and the wick-trimming tool of the lighting technician in every major theatre.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Freelance art historian and cultural scientist

Have you cleared the irritating mucus out of your nose today by vigorously expelling air, or in other words: have you “geschnäuzt”? If you’ve got the snuffles, both the process and the expression will be familiar to you. Whether it’s hay fever or a cold: if our nose is running, we will blow it (“schnäuzen”, in German). According to the Duden dictionary of the German language, the origin of this term is thought to relate to the word “Schnauze” (snout), which is why, as of 1996, we no longer spell it “schneuzen”. Well, linguistics doesn’t entirely agree on this explanation of the word’s etymology. However, this text isn’t about blowing your nose – it’s about trimming candle wicks which, admittedly, has absolutely nothing to do with a “snout”. Until the first half of the 19th century, a lit candle had to be “trimmed” (have the burnt portion of the wick cut or snipped off) at regular intervals. Not with a handkerchief, obviously, but with a pair of candle scissors.
While most candle scissors were made of iron, brass or steel, in upscale households there were also more ornamental versions made of silver with accompanying base, such as this model from the manufacturer Philipp Heinrich Schönling, Leuk-Stadt, ca. 1730/40.
While most candle scissors were made of iron, brass or steel, in upscale households there were also more ornamental versions made of silver with accompanying base, such as this model from the manufacturer Philipp Heinrich Schönling, Leuk-Stadt, ca. 1730/40. Swiss National Museum
The ancient Egyptians knew about sophisticated raw materials for candle-making, such as beeswax. But these commodities were expensive and, due to the substantial raw material requirement, even in more affluent circles of society they were virtually a luxury item. So candles for everyday use and for broad sectors of the population used to be made from poor-quality animal fat and tallow: from slaughterhouse waste and visceral fat, mainly from mutton and beef. Melting down these animal raw materials produced a mass that could be further processed into candles (and soap). Apart from the fact that these candles had a rancid, unpleasant smell, they had another drawback: they burned erratically and uncleanly. In addition, the wick itself didn’t burn, and so it became longer and longer as the candle burned down. As a result, the candle started to give off increasing amounts of smut and sooty smoke; the cheap fat oozed and dripped. The candle emitted a foul odour and produced less and less light until the flame, getting smaller and smaller, finally sputtered out.
To ensure the flame continues to burn and the family isn’t left sitting in the dark: a man uses a pair of candle scissors to trim the wick of the candle. Etching by Jan Luyken, Amsterdam, 1711.
To ensure the flame continues to burn and the family isn’t left sitting in the dark: a man uses a pair of candle scissors to trim the wick of the candle. Etching by Jan Luyken, Amsterdam, 1711. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
If you didn’t want to find yourself suddenly sitting in the dark, you had to keep using the candle scissors to cut the wick back to 10 to 15 millimetres in length. Depending on the quality of the candle and the wick, this process had to be repeated every 5 to 20 minutes. The “extinguisher” mounted on the scissor blades, a small box sometimes fitted with a snap lock, opened and closed when cutting, so that the trimmed piece of wick (the “snuff”), which at first was still smouldering, went straight into the box, where it was immediately extinguished as the oxygen supply was cut off. This stopped the remains of the wick from falling into the fuel, leaving scorch marks and soot stains on furniture, tablecloths and carpets, or even starting a fire. In any household, candle scissors (also known as wick trimmers) were essential tools for everyday use. They often came as part of a set of candle tools, some of which were attached directly to the candlesticks with chains or brackets, or were carried around by servants so that they could be used wherever they were needed, at a moment’s notice.
Maidservant with candle care tool, which she has fastened to a belt around her waist. Painting by Cornelis Troost, Amsterdam, 1737. Mauritshuis, Den Haag
The closest relative of the candle scissors is the snuffer. As the name suggests, snuffers are used to extinguish the flame in a more discreet and hygienic way than blowing it out, as the instant smothering of the flame largely avoids wax splashes, as well as smoke and soot emissions. In the 19th century, the candle snuffer was a popular symbol in graphic prints and caricatures for smothering figurative “flames”, such as nascent discontent in sections of the population, aspirations towards power and supremacy, and the desire for freedom and independence. The still common expressions “to snuff out” or “to snuff it” are derived from the process of extinguishing a flame with the cone.
King George III snuffs out Napoleon. Caricature by William Holland, 1803.
King George III snuffs out Napoleon. Caricature by William Holland, 1803. The British Museum
Wherever there was a substantial need for illumination, especially in royal palaces and theatres, there was a correspondingly large number of candles that had to be dealt with. In the 18th century, the effort and expenditure involved in lighting in large theatres was almost unmanageable. The audience area, furnished with chandeliers, candelabra and candle holders, resembled a banqueting hall and had to be adequately illuminated, as did the stage. While the old Hofburgtheater in Vienna is said to have burned its way through more than 800 candles for each performance in 1741, the year it opened, Munich’s Residenztheater raised this figure to around 1,300 candles during a single performance in 1776. But the leader in candle consumption was the Opéra Royal of Versailles. In 1770 the Opéra churned through around 3,000 candles – for every single performance! Imagine the stifling heat in the theatre space, especially at the front of the stage, the apron (or “Rampe” in German). The actors and actresses, already sweating with nerves, were mercilessly lit up from below by the light from the footlights, numerous candles lined up side by side. The sweat ran down their faces, which in those days were often whitened with stage paint; this could make them look sickly, even feverish, and explains the term “Rampenfieber”, which later evolved into “Lampenfieber” or, as we know it, stage-fright.
Footlights in a French theatre, 19th century.
Footlights in a French theatre, 19th century. Wikimedia
Another individual who must have been afflicted by “Rampenfieber” was the person whose job was to deal with all the candles in the theatre: the wick trimmer, also known in German-speaking theatres as the Schnäuzer. He was one of the lowest-ranking members of the theatre staff. One of the reasons for his low status was that he inevitably stank of burnt, rancid tallow, and he often had to wear a jester’s suit as his work clothes. Thus attired, he went about his duties not only during the intermissions but also, if necessary, in the middle of a scene, which at times made him a target of mockery and rancorous comment. If he screwed up, he was jeered and abused. However, if he did his job successfully and unobtrusively, he could sometimes earn praise and applause.
A wick trimmer in a jester’s outfit trims the wicks of the footlight candles, each with its own screen. “Candle-Snuffer” woodcut, by an unknown artist, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1876.
A wick trimmer at work in a theatre. Wikimedia
The wick trimmer was more than just a lighting technician and an object of amusement – he was also a fire safety officer. His position was therefore one of great responsibility, especially as theatre fires used to be a common occurrence. Sometimes, for the sake of convenience, the wick trimmer was given a suitable role and incorporated into the play. Allegedly, he was also required to fill in for an actor who was unwell.

A “candle revolution” thanks to stearin and paraffin

In a 1779 letter to his close friend Charlotte von Stein, Goethe expressed his annoyance with having to trim candles. The celebrated writer didn’t live to see the crucial step in the evolution of the candle, a development which can almost be described as a “revolution of the candle market”.

I cannot think of a better invention than lights that keep burning without needing to be trimmed.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
During experiments in the first third of the 19th century, chemists discovered high-quality raw materials for future candle manufacture: stearin (1818) and paraffin (1830). Stearin is obtained from animal or plant matter (from palmitic and stearic acid esters of glycerol), while paraffin is a by-product of the petroleum industry. Stearin and paraffin candles burn brightly, cleanly and consistently, and are virtually odour-free. Over the course of time many candles have combined both of these raw materials, as the harder stearin has a higher melting point, but paraffin is much cheaper.
Caricature in the “Wiener Theaterzeitung”, ca. 1848.
Apollo and Milli – the names refer to two of the first stearin candle factories in Vienna – represent the stearin candles which burn brightly and cleanly, but are expensive. The two come across as sophisticated and self-assured. They pose proudly between the curmudgeonly old wax candle and the sooty, drip-encrusted tallow candle. Caricature in the “Wiener Theaterzeitung”, ca. 1848. Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries
At the same time as new candle fuels were being developed, there was also a decisive step forward in wick technology. The wick, also known as the “soul” of the candle, conveys the fuel to the flame. For many centuries, the wick consisted of a single strand of linen or the pith of rushes. The braiding together of individual strands took the technology a step closer to an optimal burning process, and from the 1820s onwards wicks started to be made from soaked or impregnated cotton. The real breakthrough, however, was the innovative asymmetrical braiding method which ensures that the wick, as it becomes longer during the burning process, curves back with its tip towards the edge of the flame, where the most oxygen is present. Once the tip of the wick is too long and is no longer supplying wax to the flame, it will curl back into the flame and self-consume. The optimised wicks, combined with the new candle fuels, meant it was simply no longer necessary to manually shorten the wick.

Of scented candles and shooting stars

Even in the age of electricity, candles are a firm fixture of our day-to-day lives. Available in all shapes, colours and sizes, they are valued not only as a functional source of light, but also as romantic “mood enhancers”. The candle market has continued to evolve and new, better fuels have been produced. Special products such as scented and insect-repellent candles are also on offer nowadays. Wick trimmers are still commercially available, but this begs the question: who’s buying these things, and why? Nostalgia, retro chic, decorative value? Who knows? But in the end, we don’t really have to “give a snuff”. Speaking of “Schnuppe” (snuff): the word “Sternschnuppe” (shooting star) is derived from the snuffing of a candle. The Brothers Grimm explained this in their famous Deutsches Wörterbuch, citing the “[…] popular idea that when a shooting star falls it represents a clearing-out of the stars, comparable to tidying up the light with the wick trimmers or sorting out your nose by clearing your throat”. And so we’re back to blowing our noses…

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