George Stimpson

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What does by inch of Candle mean?

Candle auction or sale by inch of candle was the phrase used in England and the English Colonies to designate a public auction at which persons were permitted to bid until a small piece of candle burned out. Under date of February 9, 1710, William Byrd of West­over in Virginia wrote in his secret diary: "The sheriff of Isle of Wight [page 38] was here about the quitrents which I ordered him to sell by inch of candle." In some cases a pin was thrust through an ordinary candle a short distance from the top and the bidding went on until the candle burned down to the pin and caused it to drop into the candlestick, whereupon the last bidder was declared the buyer. By inch of candle was also applied to a form of ecclesiastical excommunication in which the offender was allowed time to repent only so long as a candle continued to burn.