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When complete, wick-trimmers are shaped like a pair of scissors with the base and sides of a box attached to one blade, and a flat cover for the box attached to the other. The scissors are to trim a candle’s wick, and the box is for collecting the remains (the ‘snuff’).
If a candle’s wick gets too long, the charred end impedes burning, making the flame dim and smoky. The self-trimming plaited wick was invented in 1825 by Joseph Cambacères. It curls over into the hottest part of the flame and burns away.
Candle-extinguishers are also known, domed or conical in shape, but are rarely recorded, perhaps because they appear to be late post-medieval or modern in date.
PAS object type to be used
The only object type possible is CANDLE SNUFFER, as ‘wick trimmer’ does not exist in the mda thesaurus. The mda’s scope note states that a candle snuffer is ‘an object used to stop a candle burning’, but wick-trimmers were certainly known as candle-snuffers before the mid 19th century.
If you are interested in the etymology, an earlier use of the verb ‘to snuff’ was ‘to cut or pinch off the burned part of a candle wick’. It comes from the Middle English noun snoffe, ‘burned part of a candle wick’.
PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used
Put ‘wick trimmer’ in the classification field, or ‘extinguisher’, as appropriate.
Terms to use in the description
The commonest part of a wick-trimmer to be found is a side-plate from the box.
Occasionally a more complete example can be found, showing the detail of construction.
HAMP-917D56 has the whole box surviving. Four elements are present: the base and bent-up sides, one of which has a notch to accommodate the blade to which the cover is attached; the soldered-on side plate; the blade soldered on to the box; and the blade and flat cover, which are made in one piece. The pin forming the hinge also survives, but the loop handles are missing. The fragility of this soldered construction probably accounts for the few relatively complete examples.
Two of the type of copper-alloy wick-trimmer usually recorded on the PAS database have been found in archaeological contexts, both from a post-medieval pit within Tenement 180 in Southampton’s French Quarter (SOU1382, nos. 106 and 114). The precise date of the pit within the post-medieval period does not appear to have been published yet.
Noel Hume (1969, 98) describes what sounds like a very similar type of wick-trimmer from colonial America, and suggests that they were in use by at least 1600. The decoration can include rocker-arm, which might suggest that they began to be used even earlier, perhaps in the 16th century.
The decline of the copper-alloy wick-trimmer is due to several factors. Firstly candles became less ubiquitous from the late 18th century, as reliable domestic oil lamps arrived, then paraffin and (in urban areas) gas lighting by the middle of the 19th century. Secondly, although candles continued to be used as small, convenient portable light sources until the introduction of electricity in the first few decades of the 20th century, wick-trimmers became far less necessary after the invention of the self-trimming wick in 1825. Lastly, wick-trimmers from the late 18th century onwards were probably made from iron, as they are still today, although they now have a small open saucer to catch the snuff.
The type of copper-alloy wick-trimmer normally recorded on the PAS database, with a separate side-plate decorated with pierced trefoil terminals, therefore seems to be confined to c. 1550-c. 1750.
There are several records on the PAS database of conical objects with small handles or prongs at the sides, sometimes with machine-pressed decoration. These may have been used to extinguish candles. Examples include IOW-75E83C and YORYM-19CA39.