NOT brothel candles

These tiny candles in small boxes with pictures of pretty ladies on them, are regularly mentioned on social media with the claim that they are brothel timers.
A prostitute would light one, the hanky panky would commence and the customer’s time would be up once the candle burned out, which generally was 7 minutes.

But the whole story is nonsense.

The candles are real but there is no contemporary evidence at all for them being used as naughty time timers, which of course doesn’t mean they were never used for this purpose, but no evidence means we shouldn’t claim it as truth.
It also doesn’t make a lot of sense, we’re talking about the Victorian era here, not the middle ages.
There were clocks and watches everywhere, some quite cheap.
You could also use am hourglass, even cheaper.
Also 7 minutes is quite a long time, for a brothel anyway.

According to this Dutch advert from 1886 they burned for 7 minutes.

What they really are is “bougies de poche” (pocket candles), tiny wax candles in a sort of matchbox that you would light and place in the little hole in the box so you would have a temporary light for when you didn’t have an oil or gas lamp nearby.
Some had a phosphorus dipped tip so they could be lit like a match.
Very handy if you just had to get undressed after coming home from the pub but didn’t want to wake up your spouse.
Also perfect for lighting all the other regular candles or lights in your house!

Interesting enough they were called “bougies de poche anglaises” in the 1867 French book “Le dernier mot de Rocambole”, so in France they knew them as English pocket candles… but the book also says that they only burned for 3 minutes…
I can’t help but wonder if they called the ones that lasted even shorter to take a dig at the English.

The Deutsches Historisches Museum has one in their collection and when asked they responded:

But what about them having pictures of pretty ladies on them?
Well many of them did indeed have gorgeous women on them and some even had saucy photos as a label, but not all of them.
They also depicted innocent household scenes, knights in shining armour, children playing and even portraits of royals and important world leaders.
Some were also clearly made as a commemorative souvenir, mass produced and sold or perhaps handed out at a special event.
A brothel related item at such an occasion would raise quite a few Victorian eyebrows.

Some of them of course were a bit saucy and there were others with naughty poems on them, people sometimes complained about this, which would be odd if they were generally accepted as something used in a brothel.
But this is perhaps why someone once came to the conclusion there must have been a connection with brothels and decided that the internet had to know.
And then the internet got hold of the story…

The first time brothel candles were mentioned online, as far as I know, was on a Reddit post about an online auction in 2016, Etsy is also full of them.
Of course brothel candles get a lot more attention than pocket candles, so maybe that’s how the fake history began, with someone making up a story to sell something mundane.
Or maybe someone just misunderstood or mistranslated a description they found elsewhere, I doubt we’ll ever know how this story was born.

So to conclude; these were tiny candles for when you needed a bit of light for longer than a single match would provide but couldn’t or didn’t want to use a lamp or big candle.
There is no evidence whatsoever that there is a specific connection with brothels or prostitution.

If you ever find a historical source that does connect the pocket candles with brothels, let me know.

Sources & references:

If you like my work, please consider supporting me on Patreon;

Become a patron

Picture(s) found online, used for (re-)educational purposes only.
I do not own the copyrights to these images, I only share them here for educational purposes to try and make sure the real story behind it becomes known and people will stop spreading false information.
If the copyright owner objects to the sharing here, kindly contact me and I shall alter the article.
If you’re interested in using any of the images here get in touch with the copyright owners mentioned in the article.
Feel free to contact me with questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s