Conversation hearts, truffles galore and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates—these are the symbols of Valentine’s Day for many lovers around the world. But why do we have a “sweets to the sweet” tradition every February 14? While the roots of Valentine’s Day go all the way back to Roman times, candy gift giving is a much more recent development. Is it because of chocolate’s reputed aphrodisiac qualities, or just a way for candy companies to sell more sweets in the lull between Christmas and Easter? Whatever the reason, those ubiquitous little red boxes flood shelves every year, and this week we’re taking a look at the reasons why.
Valentine’s Day is actually named for two different Roman saints, both called Valentine and both utterly unconnected to romantic love. Though legend persists that the original St. Valentine was a priest who performed illegal marriages for the Emperor Claudius’ soldiers, there’s no evidence to suggest this ever happened. The first mention of St. Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday appeared in the writings of Chaucer in 1382. With the medieval period came a new focus on illicit but chaste courtly love, and it is here that we see some of the familiar iconography begin to appear. Knights would give roses to their maidens and celebrate their beauty in songs from afar. But sugar was still a precious commodity in Europe, so there was no talk of exchanging candy gifts.
By the 1840s, the notion of Valentine’s Day as a holiday to celebrate romantic love had taken over most of the English-speaking world. It was Cupid’s golden age: The prudish Victorians adored the notion of courtly love and showered each other with elaborate cards and gifts. Into this love-crazed fray came Richard Cadbury, scion of a British chocolate manufacturing family and responsible for sales at a crucial point in his company’s history. Cadbury had recently improved its chocolate making technique so as to extract pure cocoa butter from whole beans, producing a more palatable drinking chocolate than most Britons had ever tasted. This process resulted in an excess amount of cocoa butter, which Cadbury used to produce many more varieties of what was then called “eating chocolate.” Richard recognized a great marketing opportunity for the new chocolates and started selling them in beautifully decorated boxes that he himself designed.
From that point, it was a quick jump to taking the familiar images of Cupids and roses and putting them on heart-shaped boxes. While Richard Cadbury didn’t actually patent the heart-shaped box, it’s widely believed that he was the first to produce one. Cadbury marketed the boxes as having a dual purpose: When the chocolates had all been eaten, the box itself was so pretty that it could be used again and again to store mementos, from locks of hair to love letters. The boxes grew increasingly elaborate until the outbreak of World War II, when sugar was rationed and Valentine’s Day celebrations were scaled down. But Victorian-era Cadbury boxes still exist, and many are treasured family heirlooms or valuable items prized by collectors.