What Do Chandlers Make?

A chandler was a trader who specialized in selling provisions and supplies, mainly to ships and their crews. The term originated in the Middle Ages when a chandler primarily dealt in candles and tallow, but over time their goods expanded to meet the growing needs of seafaring vessels. Chandlers played a vital role in outfitting ships for long journeys across oceans and supplied essential goods to ports around the world.

The chandler profession emerged in medieval Europe when international trade by sea started to grow. Candles were an essential commodity for providing light on board ships, and chandlers centralized the production and sales of candles to simplify the supply process. As maritime travel expanded globally, chandlers diversified their offerings to fulfill all the food, equipment, and supply needs of ships and sailors. This allowed captains to conveniently stock up on everything their crews might need before embarking on voyages that could last months or years.

Well-supplied ships were critical to successful trade and exploration throughout history. Chandlers enabled captains to focus on their voyages rather than worry about sourcing all the necessary provisions separately. The goods chandlers provided literally fueled the era of European expansion and colonization by keeping ships and sailors sufficiently equipped. Their availability at every major port made chandlers indispensable for sea travel right through the Age of Sail.


Chandlers were well known for crafting candles of all shapes and sizes. Candle-making was one of the original trades of chandlers when the profession first emerged in medieval times.

Some of the most common candle types produced by chandlers included tallow candles, beeswax candles, spermaceti candles from whale oil, and later, paraffin wax candles. Each material gave candles different burning properties.

Tallow candles were made from rendered animal fat, often from cows or sheep. They produced a cheap candle with a smoky flame and foul smell. Beeswax candles were more expensive but burned brighter and cleaner. Spermaceti candles from whale oil were considered the finest quality candles in their heyday during the 1700s and 1800s.

The candle-making process involved several steps. Chandlers would melt down the main material, usually over a kettle heated by an open fire. Then wicks were repeatedly dipped into the molten material to build up layers around the wick. After cooling and drying, the finished candles were trimmed to size. Some decorative candles were created by pouring liquid wax into molds instead of dipping.

Chandlers also made candles in an array of sizes, from small table candles to extra large pillars for lighting halls and outdoor areas at night before electric lighting. Candle molds allowed chandlers to create candles of specific shapes and diameters.


Soap making was an essential trade for chandlers. They produced a variety of soaps that were used for washing, bathing, shaving, and cleaning. The most common soap varieties produced included:

Castile soap – Made from olive oil, this was a gentle soap popular for bathing and laundering fine fabrics. Castile soap bars were often scented with essential oils like lavender or rosemary.

Marseilles soap – Named after the French city, this olive oil soap had a high lather content, making it excellent for washing and cleaning. Bay laurel oil was frequently added for fragrance.

Palm soap – Chandlers rendered fat from palm crops to produce these affordable, long-lasting soap bars. Palm oil soaps were very gentle.

Toilet soaps – Heavily scented and molded into round cakes, these were an early version of modern hand soaps for washing up. Varieties included rose, lavender, lemon, and almond.

The most common soapmaking methods used by chandlers were hot process and cold process soap crafting. The ingredients were lye, oils, butters, and fragrances. Hot process involved cooking the soap mixture before pouring it into molds. Cold process required leaving soap to cure for several weeks after being poured.

Lamp Oil

Chandlers played an important role in supplying lamp oil before the widespread use of electricity. They would sell a variety of oils that could be burned in lamps to produce light.

Some of the most common types of oils sold for lamps included:

  • Whale oil – Extracted from whale blubber, whale oil was one of the most popular lamp oils in the 18th and 19th centuries before petroleum became widely available.

  • Olive oil – The oil pressed from olives was a common lamp oil in Mediterranean regions.

  • Coconut oil – Produced from dried coconuts, this oil was popular in tropical regions.

  • Palm oil – Extracted from the fruit of oil palms, palm oil was another tropical plant oil used for lamps.

  • Sesame oil – Oil made from sesame seeds could also be burned in lamps.

Chandlers would supply the oils along with consumable wicking materials that delivered the oil to the lamp’s flame. Common wicking materials included cotton, flax, and hemp textiles.

Ship Supplies

Chandlers played a critical role in supplying necessary goods for ships and seafaring voyages. Some of the key ship supplies provided by chandlers included:

Ropes – Ropes were essential items needed in massive quantities on sailing ships. Ropes were necessary for anchoring, adjusting sails, securing cargo and supplies, and myriad other purposes. Chandlers supplied various types and sizes of rope that were vital for operating the ship.

Nails – Wooden sailing ships required thousands of nails to hold their structure together. Shipbuilders relied on chandlers to provide iron nails of all sizes to construct and maintain ships. Nails were also used for building crates, barrels, and other containers for holding cargo.

Timber – Timber was the very skeleton of wooden ships. Chandlers sold planks, beams, masts and spars to shipyards for building and repairing hulls, decks, and other structures. Oak was especially prized for its strength.

Canvas – Sails were made from heavy canvas supplied by chandlers. They provided bolts of canvas cut to the dimensions specified by the ship’s sailmaker. The canvas was usually coated to make it waterproof yet still breathable.

Tar – Wooden ships required regular treatments of tar to waterproof the hull and protect it from dry rot. Chandlers sold tar in barrels for applying between planks and on deck seams. Tar was also used to coat ropes and canvas.

Medicinal Remedies

Chandlers often produced medicinal remedies like ointments, tinctures, and salves to treat various ailments. They sold these directly to customers or supplied them to apothecaries and doctors. Common medicinal remedies included:

Ointments: Ointments made from beeswax or tallow could be infused with herbs and essential oils for healing skin conditions, wounds, joint pain, and more.

Tinctures: Alcohol or vinegar based tinctures allowed the medicinal benefits of herbs, barks, and roots to be extracted and concentrated. Chandlers bottled and sold tinctures for internal or external use.

Salves: Thick salves made by combining beeswax or oils with herbal ingredients were used to treat skin conditions and provide pain relief when applied topically.

The knowledge of medicinal plants and preparations was an important skill for chandlers. Their ability to produce effective remedies increased demand for their shop’s products.

Household Goods

In addition to supplies for ships and lighting, chandlers also produced a variety of household goods that were in demand during their heyday. One key area they specialized in was adhesives, inks, and polishes.

Chandlers were renowned for their glues made from animal parts, which were used for everything from basic repairs to bookbinding. The strength and water resistance of their sturdy animal glues made them useful for carpentry and joining wood. Chandler glues were sold in powder or liquid form for convenience.

Chandlers also prepared their own inks for writing and printing. Their secret formulas for black writing ink provided rich dark tones on paper. Printer’s ink was specially formulated to adhere to metal type while remaining quick drying. Writing ink came in bottles, while printer’s ink was sold in balls that could be easily melted down.

Polishing compounds and waxes were another specialty. Beeswax and wax blends produced by chandlers gave furniture and surfaces protection and luster. Their polishing creams containing oils and fine abrasives were able to buff metal to a gleam. Households could purchase these useful polishes from the chandler.

Food Items

Chandlers made and sold various types of food items, especially spices, teas, and preserves. Access to exotic spices from Asia and the Americas expanded greatly during the Age of Discovery. As trade routes connected Europe to the rest of the world, chandlers capitalized on the public’s growing appetite for seasonings like pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. These spices not only added flavor to food, but were believed to provide medicinal benefits. Chandlers packaged and sold spices alongside herbs, salts, sugars, and flavorings.

Tea also became increasingly available in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries as trade with China grew. Chandlers sold fashionable teas like oolong, green tea, and black tea, catering to the upper class demand for the beverage. Tea was still an expensive luxury at the time, so chandlers marketed their exotic tea selections as a status symbol.

Chandlers also sold jams, jellies, pickled foods, and other preserves. Before refrigeration, preserving fruits and vegetables was vital to make them last through the winter months. Chandlers offered seasonal preserved produce like jams, marmalades, and chutneys. Housewives depended on chandlers as a source of supplies for stocking the family pantry.

Notable Chandlers

Chandlers have played an important role throughout history, supplying vital goods for daily life and long journeys. Here are some of the most famous chandlers through the ages:

Thomas Fielding (1668-1733) – One of the most renowned chandlers in 18th century London. He supplied the Royal Navy as well as merchant and exploration ships. His shop near the docks provided all manner of supplies from food to sailcloth.

Yamamoto Handel (1721-1789) – A prosperous chandler in 18th century Japan. He created specially scented candles and soaps favored by the imperial court in Kyoto. His shop in Osaka was patronized by samurai and wealthy merchants.

Jonas Bronck (1600-1643) – A Dutch immigrant to New Amsterdam (New York), he set up a chandlery providing beeswax candles, linen, tools, and food to early colonists. The Bronx is named for him.

Agnes Wilson (1832-1906) – Born in Scotland, she emigrated to Melbourne, Australia in the 1850s. Her chandlery supplied miners during the Victorian gold rush with picks, pans, oil lamps, clothing, and more. She was known for high quality goods at fair prices.

These chandlers and many more provided critical goods that fueled eras of exploration, trade, and industry. Their ingenuity and entrepreneurship enabled travel and supported growing societies across the globe.

Decline of Chandlers

The profession of chandlers began to decline in the 18th and 19th centuries with the onset of industrialization and the emergence of new specialized professions. Here are some of the key factors that led to the decline of chandlers:

Industrialization – The mass production of goods in factories decreased the need for handmade items by chandlers. Machine-made candles, soaps and other goods could be produced more efficiently and cheaply than traditional chandler wares.

Chemical Industry – New chemical processes allowed products like soap and dyes to be mass-produced, eliminating the need for chandlers to make them by hand.

Urbanization – As populations concentrated in cities, large factories and industrial production centers replaced the small-scale artisanal economy that chandlers were a part of.

Specialization – New professions emerged focusing on specific aspects of production. Chandlers, who were generalists, got squeezed out as lighting experts, soap makers, ship suppliers became distinct skilled trades.

Electricity – Electric lighting starting in the late 1800s removed the necessity for candles, dealing a huge blow to chandlers.

Shipbuilding Advances – New materials like steel and mechanical technology led to less need for ship chandlers to provide supplies and parts.

Retail Industry – The growth of shops selling pre-made goods reduced demand for household items custom-made by chandlers.

By the early 20th century, chandlers had been largely supplanted in their traditional roles. Only a small niche market for handmade, artisanal chandler goods remains today.

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