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April 11, 2013

Candles made from animal fat or beeswax have been used since prehistory. In the eighteenth century, whaling made spermaceti a common material for candles. According to Russian Wikipedia, it was an 1820 discovery by a French chemist that allowed people to separate fatty acids from animal fat, and “stearine” is one of these fatty acids. The print Encyclopedia Americana article on “candle” has a brief reference to “solid fatty acids (palmitic and stearic)” but doesn’t talk about stearin(e) as a thing. In the 1850s paraffin wax, a petroleum product, was discovered. For more see this excellent post by Katya Cotey, which has a picture of special scissors used to cut off old-fashioned wicks.

stearine candlesLiterary candles seem to come in three materials in Russian (восковые, стеариновые, сальные), but only two in English (wax and tallow). I take it that восковые свечи are wax candles, while tallow covers both стеариновые (‘stearine’) and сальные (‘fat’). Corrections are welcome, but I gather стеариновые свечи were commercially produced candles based on a mix of particular fatty acids, while сальные свечи were made at home from rendered animal fat, without benefit of French chemical discoveries, and burn with more smoke and an unpleasant odor. Within purchased candles, стеариновые were cheaper than восковые. Cheaper than the сальная свечка was the лучина, a thin piece of dry wood set on fire (even simpler than the rushlight).

Wax candles burn before icons or thousands give light to the well-off. One or two tallow (сальные) candles dimly light a cold room, or someone salvages a burnt piece of one off a candlestick. In between are the practical stearine candles. In Turgenev’s Rudin, Afrikan Pigasov says

“But do you know the difference between our kind of mistakes and a woman’s mistake? You don’t? It’s this: a man can say, for example, that two times two is not four, but five or three and a half, while a woman will say that two times two is a stearine candle.”

Но знаете ли, какая разница между ошибкою нашего брата и ошибкою женщины? Не знаете? Вот какая: мужчина может, например, сказать, что дважды два — не четыре, а пять или три с половиною; а женщина скажет, что дважды два — стеариновая свечка.

This makes it into lists of “winged expressions”; the linked page seems to take “stearine candle” as a non sequitur, a misogynist’s view of female illogic. That fits the context, as it’s in a determined and tedious though provoking argument about what’s wrong with women, before Pigasov turns to mocking Ukrainians. I first took it as an oblique reference to the price of stearine candles (whatever it was), and a claim that women were too occupied with household concerns to have time for male abstractions, but I might have given Pigasov too much credit.

Elsewhere in Turgenev a woman places a курительная свечка (scented candle) on top of a coin by a window. You find римские свечи (Roman candles) in Krestovskii, as well as малахитовские подсвечники (malachite candlesticks). His characters also love to say “the game is not worth the candle,” or rather “candles”: игра не стоит свеч. In Pushkin a candle may be под зонтиком (under an umbrella); I wonder if that’s any different from the абажур (lampshade) over one of Tolstoi’s candles.

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