Myth # 135: Adjustable “courting candles” were used by fathers as a timer to determine the length of a suitor’s visit.

901-520-&-901-526-courting-candleholder-&-drip-pan-full

According to legend, courting candles were used by fathers to set a time limit when his daughter’s suitor came courting. He would adjust the candle in the twisted holder and when the candle had burned to the top twist, it was time for the young man to leave. One manufacturer of reproduction candle holders elaborates imaginatively on this myth, “Rich or poor, the courting candle was used by fathers from all economic backgrounds. It taught daughters to respect their parents’ judgment. The candle also taught the suitor to defer to the father’s ability to judge a man . . . the courting candle served as an important boundary line in the family and social fabrics.” Wow! A real necessity in every household! 

But Henry Prebys, curator of domestic life at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Michigan, says the term courting candle is more folklore than fact. The Chicago Tribune debunks this legend nicely in a June 28, 1998 article, so I’ll quote:

Although the candleholder indeed may have been used as a time-keeper for suitors, it was not intentionally made for that purpose. Origin: The candleholder with its spiral shape was popular in Germany before being introduced to the American Colonies by the early Pennsylvania-German settlers. According to Prebys, the appeal of the spiral shape was its practicality. The candle easily could be twisted into the holder. If the candle was soft, the shape of the holder prevented it from falling over. A slide connected to the holder also helped move the candle up or down, thus utilizing as much of the candle as possible. This was important because candles were costly.

Prebys notes that candles were not the preferred source of lighting during the Colonial period because of their cost. Most households used fat lamps, small dishes containing fat or oil and a wick. Fat lamps were more practical and far less costly than candles. Prebys explains that candles were expensive because they required certain skills to make and were labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The article concludes by noting that there are probably more reproduction courting candles today than there were originals made during the colonial era. 

Thank you, Anna Schaad Chappelle, Executive Director of Marble Springs in Tennessee, for forwarding this myth.

9 Responses to Myth # 135: Adjustable “courting candles” were used by fathers as a timer to determine the length of a suitor’s visit.

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Interesting side issue: Honey bees, the type that give honey and wax were NOT native to America and were brought starting in 1622, but they did not spread that fast or far. Indians called them English flies. See:
    http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/agcom/newscolumns/archives/OSL/1999/November/111199OSL.htm
    Wax, therefore, was in short supply, thus tallow candles.. If you want to see how a candle made of tallow works, form the wax you get on cheese around a string and light it. It will burn but most of it will melt and that is why there are large wax collectors on some candlesticks..Gather it up and re form it!

  2. Gerry Barker says:

    There probably were more beef and deer tallow candles than beeswax. Tallow candles were softer and definitely would be aided by the spiral holder. If you are going to try it, however, you have to keep the flame an inch or so above the metal otherwise the heat travels down the spiral and melts the candle. The logistical problem with beeswax is that until modern hive technology, it was hard to get enough wax to light a dwelling for any length of time. A few years ago we found a bee tree. As an experiment we went back in late winter and harvested it. The hive ran about ten feet up inside the trunk. We brought back ten pack baskets of hive. Cooked down we got abut a quart of honey and a dozen candles. It would have been impossible for the average household to rely on candles for lighting. That is why grease lamps (kitchen lamps, cruzies, etc.) were the most common.

  3. Liz says:

    Our local “living history” museum very adamantly touts “courting candles” as part of their tour of several pioneer cabins from the 1850s, mostly because they sell quite a number of them in the gift shop. Romance sells more candle holders than practicality, I suppose, but it still bothers me. They are handsome and perfectly functional without the story attached and would probably sell well without the myth attached.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I believe you are correct, Liz, that the myth sells reproductions in the gift shop. That is the basis for many myths being repeated. At Colonial Williamsburg, product literature and salespeople continue to repeat the myth about the pineapple being a symbol of hospitality–they sell loads of pineapple bookmarks, trivets, door knockers, etc.–even though historians in the Research Department have said this wasn’t true. Money often trumps the truth, I’m afraid.

  4. As a docent/volunteer at the Parks service venue at the Arch in St Louis I have told the romantic story of the Courting candle stick many hundreds of time. Usually use it in conjunction with pioneers and marriage proposals and how they were accomplished back in the Day. I add a little caveat at the end simply because it teaches human interaction principles between married couples.

    The caveat takes the fun little story about the courting candlestick, the prairie diamond horse nail ring, which was used in medieval France, the proper protocol in asking for a mans daughter hand in marriage, and brings interactions between man and woman to life into a powerful realm. Across the board the story is well received. It is fun to watch married couples smile at each other and acknowledge many times the male spouse did go to the wife’s father and ask permission to marry his daughter.

    I do understand these principles of this article, the spiral candle stick holder and the basic reasons to actually hold a soft candle upright. So the question is, as a docent am I to present the facts and only the facts ( Boring?) or am I part entertainer providing a fun and thought provoking experiences? I have nothing to sell and is there conclusive proof the adjustable candle stick was not used as a timer in a courting setting? Have seen the lights come on in many a young persons face especially the young single men when teaching some principles of courtship. I suppose though the courting candle stick story is hardly any worse than a story about buffalo dung/chips being used as fuel to cook the first batch of spicy now called Buffalo chicken/wings. Drummies?

    Part of the beauty of our common history is we have story’s out there which are no doubt fabrications, tall tales, and outright myth’s, Paul Bunyan and babe, the Blue Ox, Calamity Jane, the White Buffalo, Pecos Bill and the Blue Lake Monster to name a few.

    Now a true story about the courting candle stick in our time. Two to three years ago a young mother in her early thirties came past my station in the museum under arch on a Sunday afternoon. What struck me about her was she gasped when she saw my courting spiral candle stick holder which has a beeswax candle, in which my wife and I burned another once, lasting two and one half hours. The woman laughed and said with emphasis, “My parents did this to me”.

    I prefer the fun light hearted approach to romance and so will divine a caveat to use with my Courting Candle stick holder so as not to lead anyone astray.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the insight, Charles. I, myself, would not be comfortable spreading stories I could not document, and in my time as a “hostess” for Colonial Williamsburg, I did not knowingly do so, although I did do so unknowingly! In some cases, if the myth or story has value, I might consider relating it with the explanation that it is a legend or tall tale or undocumented story–whatever seems appropriate. But that’s just my opinion and neither here nor there. At your site, of course, it’s up to your superiors to establish guidelines.

    • Jake Pontillo says:

      I’m opposed to relaying information that one KNOWS to be false or undocumented merely because it is cute or entertaining. That is absolutely 180 degrees away from what a museum or historic site should be doing… if someone wants to relay such information, please preference it with the notice that “there is a cute and entertaining story about this, but it is not true, but I will tell you for your enjoyment.”

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