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Tallow was an important by-product of the cattle and sheep industry at the California missions. Tallow was used in the making of soap and candles. It was also used as an article of trade with the ships that regularly sailed along the California coast.

Tallow was made from the excess fat scraped from the hides of cattle or sheep. The fat was cooked over a low fire in a large metal vessel or vat. Some of the metal vessels were obtained from whaling ships, where they had been used to heat whale blubber.

The heating process melted the fat down to a whitish, solid wax-like substance. The melted fat was first drawn off from the liquid, allowed to cool into a solid, and then stored until it was needed for making candles or soap, or for trade. Often the tallow was stored in large bags made from the hides of cattle.

Soap was made by mixing the tallow with a substance called potash that contained a chemical called potassium hydroxide. The potash was obtained by leaching, or running water through, the ashes from a wood fire.

The tallow and potash were placed in large kettles and boiled. After several days of heating, the tallow became liquid. It combined with the potash to form lumps of soft soap. The soap floated to the top of the liquid in the kettle, so it could easily be skimmed off. The cooled soap was put into molds to shape it into large blocks. When it began to harden, the soap was cut into bars and allowed to dry.

Mission San Gabriel was known for the large quantities of soap that were made there. This mission had four large vats or boilers that were used in soap making. The vats were made of adobe bricks and lined with several inches of iron. They held over 2,500 gallons of liquid. Mission San Gabriel made so much soap that they could supply it to many of the other missions.

The soap made at the missions was rather harsh and did not have a pleasing smell, but it worked well for cleaning the clothes. The women rubbed the bars of soap directly onto the wet clothes. On Saturday mornings, one cake of soap was given to each worker.

When daylight was gone, candles were the source of light for the padres and for the mission workers. Each padre kept candles on his desk in his room. In the evenings, by the candlelight, he would write out his reports on the mission activities, and read his religious books.

Since the windows in the mission buildings were small, rooms were not well lit even in the daytime. Candles were needed for light for many indoor tasks. Candles were also used in each church service, to light the room as well as part of the worship. Some churches and a few of the guest reception halls in the convento wings of the missions had chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and held candles to light the rooms.

Tallow was used to make the candles for the missions. Sometimes the tallow was mixed with beeswax collected from the hives of wild bees. Lengths of string were cut to serve as wicks in the candles. The strings were coated with the melted tallow to form the candles.

There were several methods of candle making that produced a number of candles at one time. Each involved a device made of wood.

At some missions, the candlewick strings were attached to wooden cross-arms that extended from a central post. A container of melted tallow, with a small fire burning beneath it to keep the tallow liquid, was placed under the cross-arm. The cross-arm was lowered so that the strings dipped into the tallow. When the cross-arm was raised, some of the melted tallow stuck to each string. Each cross-arm in turn was lowered so that the strings were dipped into the melted tallow and then were raised up. This allowed time for the wax to harden slightly on the strings, before that cross-arm came around again to be dipped. Each time a set of strings went into the tallow, another layer of wax was added to the candle.

At other missions the candle making frame was round, like a wooden wheel laid flat. The pieces of string for the candlewicks hung from the rim of the wheel. Melted tallow was poured from a small container over the hanging strings. The wheel was turned slowly so that each string in turn got a coating of tallow. A container below caught the excess tallow as it dripped off the wicks. With many layers of tallow, the candles were formed.  Making candles took careful attention. The melted tallow had to be kept at just the right temperature. If it was too hot, it would melt off the wicks. When the tallow cooled, it became too thick to dip the wicks into it. The fire had to keep burning at just the right hotness to keep the tallow at the correct temperature.

Both candle making and soap making were done during the cold months, because of the need to keep a fire burning all through the process. Indian children were kept busy at this time, gathering wood for the fires.

Whenever a mission produced more tallow than was needed for making soap and candles, it was traded to the merchant ships for objects that could not be produced at the mission. There was a market for tallow in eastern North America and in South America.

Near the end of the mission period, some lamps were used in addition to the candles. Olive oil was used as fuel in the lamps.

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