Think of wax and you’re likely to see the warm glow of a romantic dinner in a candlelit bistro. But it’s not all scented tapers and honeycombs. There could be a mummy buried under that wax! This map takes a blazing look at why wax was crucial to the French Revolution, royal forgeries, Descartes’s epiphanies, recorded music and hip-hop, dermaphiles and aestheticians, the madness of Vincent Price villains and, of course, ear candling.
For the thinking man’s thinking man René Descartes, wax enkindled nothing less than an existential crisis. In his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes notices that his melting beeswax candle doesn’t hold a constant shape and concludes from this that the senses cannot be trusted. After all, if matter can completely change its appearance, then how can empirical observations be accurate? Is the wax still wax? Descartes thinks so, but his senses tell him otherwise. He finally settles upon the idea that the only dependable source of information is his own mind. As he posits in an earlier treatise, “I think, therefore I am.”
Descartes’s candle panic is an ironic achievement: He is thrown into mental darkness by an object that for millennia has allowed people to see. The ancient Egyptians created the earliest known “candles,” soaking reeds in animal fat to produce a flame that burned slowly. (In fact, candles made of Descartes’s shifty, wicked wax didn’t drop until the ancient Roman Empire came around.) Waxless candles don’t shape-shift—they smolder, turn to ashes and scatter in the wind. Who knows what depressing conclusion Descartes might have drawn from that.
Candle is derived from the Latin candere, meaning “to shine.” Candlelight is useful in exposing the corruption of the dark. Then again, wax can be reshaped with little effort, making it an ideal substance in the hands of a con man. Take, for example, royal wax seals, which are easily counterfeited. Indeed, such forgeries were commonplace in the medieval era—even in churches. In 1238 archdeacon Simon Langton dismissed the efficacy of seals: “There is not a single sort of forgery that is not perpetrated in the church of Canterbury. For they have forged in gold, in lead, in wax.” A swindler in 1348 Suffolk, England, once posed as a merchant from Ghent with a fraudulent royal seal from English queen Philippa. He presented the fakery and made off with a handsome bounty. And who can forget Hamlet? Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark is sent by his Machiavellian uncle Claudius with written orders to be murdered in England. Accompanied by Claudius’s spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet finds the letter and replaces his name with theirs. He seals the new command with his murdered father’s signet ring, dooming the fates of his companions.
Aestheticians, dry-skin sufferers and anyone interested in the slathering of lotions make generous use of a special ingredient once associated with candles. Indeed, dermaphiles mix beeswax into soap and use it to thicken face cream, and for good reason: The stuff is the bee’s knees, creating antibacterial, skin-softening barriers that protect against irritants. And it’s a key component in many household products, such as mascara and shoe polish.
The most common dermal application of beeswax is lip balm. That product, however, might almost be called a rip-off, since people carry a free version on their person at all times. One age-old remedy suggests smearing, of all things, earwax, the goopy mixture of dead skin cells, known as cerumen, onto dry and chapped lips. Nowadays, that may be considered, well, gross. Sending a cotton swab on a spelunking mission to get rid of the stuff has become de rigueur. But some folks instead insert a smoking, hollow candle into their ear canals. This technique, known as ear candling, purports to suck out the wax and anything untoward trapped as if in amber. But not only has ear candling not been proved effective, it can be downright dangerous.
In candlelit rooms, old European monarchs and popes marked their decrees and imperial missives with special seals made from beeswax and resin. They heated the mixture, drizzled it onto documents and scrolls, and then impressed the cooling puddles with their unique signet rings. The word imprimatur and phrase seal of approval derive from this kingly practice.
But wax has not always been formed into respectful representations of royalty. In the late 18th century French revolutionaries deposed and disposed of the heads of government. In 1793 King Louis XVI, stripped of his title and dubbed Citizen Louis Capet, was guillotined. A mad, bloody string of beheadings followed: Ex-queen Marie Antoinette and Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, were among those given the seal of death. In the aftermath, wax sculptor Marie Tussaud was hired to make death masks of the executed royals. She molded wax heads that were gleefully paraded down the blood-soaked streets. Madame Tussaud’s name has become synonymous with wax sculpture. Countless wax figures—including American “royalty” Lady Gaga and King of Pop Michael Jackson—inhabit the many Madame Tussauds wax museums across the globe.
It was a bad day for wax when Thomas Edison invented the electric candle. (As product launches go, the debut of the lightbulb was incandescent.) Today electric light is taken for granted, and candles are begrudgingly pulled out of dusty drawers only when storms knock out power, casting homes into pre-Edison darkness. But Edison was also a wax pioneer. In 1877 he recorded, then reproduced for the first time, sound on a tin phonograph. Eleven years later he introduced wax cylinders, called “canned music” or records, which were imprinted with tunes and could be played back by his machines. But these tall cylinders were awkward to store and temperamental to use. By the swinging 1920s Edison’s phonograph cylinders were shouldered out by flatter discs. Soon wax was replaced altogether with vinyl, a.k.a. the platters that matter.
Today Edison’s wax contribution can be appreciated from staggering heights. His likeness is preserved, fixed in a small wax museum at the top of the Eiffel Tower. He sits with a waxen Gustave Eiffel, the iconic tower’s architect, in the same office where Edison first showed Eiffel his phonograph.
The 1953 3-D horror film House of Wax tells the tale of Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a creepy sculptor devoted to his wax figures. After his partner torches their museum and splashes kerosene on him, a vengeful Jarrod decides to rebuild. The catch: His next museum houses real people embalmed in wax. This is not too much of a stretch: Morticians originally used wax to cover up trauma to corpses. And Hollywood makeup artists use gooey derma wax to imitate open wounds. But the scariest part of House of Wax is that its premise practically came true on the set of espionage TV show The Six Million Dollar Man. In 1976, while filming an episode, a crew member moved what he thought was a wax sculpture hanging from a gallows. Upon closer inspection, the prop turned out to be the corpse of bank robber Elmer McCurdy, who had died in 1911. When no one claimed the outlaw’s body, the undertaker mummified him. McCurdy was then claimed by charlatans, covered in wax and displayed as the One-Thousand-Year-Old Man. His remains were unceremoniously passed from wax museum to wax museum, until finally being mistaken for a prop.
The word mummy comes from the Persian mum, or “wax.” Ancient Egyptians used wax to preserve their corpses—hence mummies. But today’s embalmers utilize a cocktail of formaldehyde, methanol and other toxic solvents. One by one, traditional uses for wax have melted and been replaced by new, improved methods. Seals on letters, for instance: the fat, hardened wax would break and crumble in the postal system’s modern letter-feeding machines. Instead, envelopes offer their own adhesive, resulting in slim letters that can be bundled in a courier’s bag.
Wax cylinder phonographs too gave way to new technology: vinyl records. Records are coated with wax as a protectant, so for a while wax did remain king. Even vinyl, however, was eventually replaced by cassettes, CDs and ephemeral formats such as digital files. But thanks to hip-hop, vinyl—or “wax” as rappers still call it—is part of a comeback a generation in the making. As Adam Horovitz, a.k.a. King Ad-Rock, decrees in the 1986 Beastie Boys song “The New Style”: “And on the cool check in / Center stage on the mic / And we’re puttin’ it on wax / It’s the new style.” Maybe wax reigns supreme after all.