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If you do a search for chandler, most of the results are for suppliers to boats. Dictionaries suggest that one of the meanings of the word is a dealer or trader for a specialized market. Both dictionaries there mention a ship's chandler as one example, without saying that it's the predominant example (the other example given is corn chandler). Both of these dictionaries, and the Online Etymology Dictionary also define a chandler as one who makes or deals in candles. The etymology dictionary gives only this definition.

My guess is that chandler broadened from a dealer in candles to a dealer in any specialised trade and then narrowed to a supplier for boats. Is that right?

Just to confuse matters further, Wikipedia does not mention the any specialised trade definiton, suggesting the word moved directly from describing a candle-maker to describing a ship's supplier.

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"Worked in this industry for 14 years. Incredible diversity of participants as you might imagine, with ships flying the flags of many countries, and of the goods and services themselves. And the modern version does indeed include provisioning (food/consumables). Found the reference to what we referred to as the "captain's commission" very interesting. Current language would probably describe it as a kickback. The percentage was not always set, as one chandler might negotiate a higher 'commission' to secure the business over another... – Mitch Oct 17 '15 at 23:37
... Of course, the price of the commission would normally be passed on to the ship owner, in the form of higher prices on the goods and services." Tim Thorson – Mitch Oct 17 '15 at 23:37
up vote 1 down vote accepted

This is a nice story.

As already noted, the chandler is originally an occupation centred around the production and commerce of candles. The name itself comes from the French chandelier, which in addition to designating the candelabrum itself, used to designate a person whose trade it was to make and sell candles.

Since the fabrication of candles also yields soap as a by-product, most chandlers were also in the business of producing and selling soap.

Ships of course with always a proportion of seamen on the watch were natural consumer of candles and they needed to replenish their stocks every now and then throughout their sailing itinerary. There was indeed no compelling reason to purchase the whole stock of candles needed for a given journey in the home port. On the contrary, well advised shipowners would take advantage of the differences of prices for candles and other products in the home port and in the ports of call in order to level down the total expense.

They would therefore enter in global procurement deals with large volume chandlers located in the various ports of call and open a line of credit with each of them.
They would also have their seamen benefit from the deals not only to increase the purchased volumes and get a better deal but also as a deal sweetener towards the crew - possibly lower wages compensated by additional benefits.

Yet for the seamen that actually was a big advantage because they knew were to get stuff in each port and they would not need to change currencies (at least for these kind of supplies ;-). All they had to do was to make sure they took their allowance of each permitted product.
Besides, even if they'd drink up their wages, the quartermaster would still be assured that they'd have received basic commodities from the chandler's stores.

The structure of the actual financial arrangements was such that chandlers were naturally drawn into extending the range of offered items to whatever ships and individual seamen actually needed, much beyond the initial speciality of candle making.

This is why the profession of chandler gradually shifted from just candle and soap making to that of one stop shops for merchant ships in the 18th and 19th century.

In the wake of previous centuries' English naval supremacy one might say.

Here is an excerpt of the Wikipedia chandlery article:

They supply the crew's food, ships maintenance supplies, cleaning compounds, paint, rope, et cetera. The advantage of a ship's crew using a chandler is that they do not have to find stores in the town they have landed in, nor hold that local currency - assuming they are let out of the dock compound by the immigration authorities. Typically, the ship owner has a line of credit with the chandler and is billed for anything delivered to the crew of his ship. The chandler is supplied by merchants local to his location.
Their distinguishing feature is the high level of service demanded and the short time required to fill and deliver their special orders. Because commercial ships discharge and turn around quickly, delay is expensive and the services of a dependable ship chandler are urgent. Because these contracts are so lucrative, the practice developed among ship chandlers to rebate to ships' officers approximately 5% of the invoice price of the ships' stores billed to the vessel, to encourage repeat business.
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But ships chandlers are the suppliers of hardware, not the provisioning (food/consumables) so I don't think sailors would rush ashore to make sure they got soap and candles. – mgb Jun 1 '11 at 21:38
@Martin, Sure they wouldn't rush, but if the "ship owner is billed for anything delivered to the crew of his ship", the seamen would probably take their allowance anyway. May be this is not obvious from the answer but chandlers main customers were indeed the ship officers, acting on behalf of the shipowner, and they would potentially need any kind of nautical maintenance supplies - hence the wide range of hardware products included in chandlery trade. – Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 1 '11 at 21:55
This is a fascinating explanation, can you cite any references to ensure that is not just a legend? I would love to believe that it's true. – Richard A Nov 17 '11 at 20:17

Mostly guessing - chandler originally referred to the person in charge of the candles in a large house. Gradually the term got used for anybody in charge of a certain set of stock.
Marine language is very traditional and older terms last a lot longer than in general speech.

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OED agrees. Also: tallowchandlers.org – Marcin Jun 1 '11 at 18:40

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