Conversation Hearts might be cute and festive, but unless you want to be a sucker this Valentine’s Day, you better gift your sweetie with some serious chocolate. And if you want your true love to know these aren’t just regular chocolates—these are Valentine’s Day chocolates—they better be bundled in, specifically, a bright red heart-shaped box.
You could put those chocolates in just about any shaped box—a square, a triangle, a rhombus. Yet, it’s the heart shape that has stood the test of time this holiday. But when and where did the first heart-shaped box of chocolates come from?
As with the origins of many holiday traditions, a genius sales and marketing effort was at its core.
British chocolatier Richard Cadbury (yes, that Cadbury) created the first heart-shaped box design, but before that, he first had to invent chocolates as we know them today.
In the early 1800s, chocolate’s popularity was waning in Europe. It had previously been both fashionable and expensive to consume—not to mention it was primarily served as a liquid. But tastes changed and soon the drink was considered greasy and unrefined compared to other favorite European drinks like tea and coffee.
The grittiness was a result of the cocoa butter. People didn’t like the taste of it in their drink, but it was difficult and time consuming to remove. That is, until a Dutch chemist figured out how to use a hydraulic press to squeeze the grease (cocoa butter) from the roasted beans, thereby separating the cocoa from the fat. This fat was seen as useless byproduct.
But not for long.
After Cadbury and his brother took over their family chocolate manufacturing business in 1861, Richard discovered that by adding small amounts of melted, clarified cocoa butter back in with cocoa solids—along with sugar and other flavors—you could create a moldable melt-in-your-mouth treat that could be easily sold to the consumer. (To clarify, the first edible chocolate bar was created by J.S. Fry & Sons, but it was Cadbury who gave us chocolates filled with marzipan, ganache, and fruity crèmes, perfect for filling little boxes lined with lace doilies.)
The tiny treats also opened up the market to just about anyone. Depending on your discretionary income, you could buy one single candy or a whole box of candies. Either way, customers couldn’t wait to get their hands on more.
Then in a business move that would change the industry (and the holiday) forever, Cadbury started to design beautiful boxes for his new bite-sized chocolate treats, including special ones for Valentine’s Day with cupids and roses. It’s believed that Richard Cadbury, during this time in 1868, made the first heart-shaped candy box, though he never applied for a patent, according to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.
The new box changed the shape of modern Valentine’s Day observance. The ornate boxes with frilly decorations appealed to Victorian era tastes and sensibilities in that it was suggestive yet not sexual, and could serve as a proper Valentine’s Day gift from a man to a woman. And once the chocolates were eaten, the box could be kept to store sentimental love letters, lockets of hair, or other prized mementos inside, writes NPR.
Today, heart-shaped boxes are no longer creative. The idea that such a gift was ever seen as truly romantic is quaint and even hokey. Yet, some 40 million of them will be sold for Valentine’s Day this year. (More than half of those from Russell Stover.)
There is a box for any price point. Walk into any CVS or Walgreens and scoop up a Whitman’s sampler for $9.99, or go for a 37-piece box of Godiva and drop $99.95. Along with the sweets inside, the decor is usually on par with what you pay for. On the more expensive end, you’ll find a satiny box tied with a beautiful ribbon. On the cheaper end and you’ll find a flimsy paper box printed with a picture of a ribbon.
And while some might guess flowers to be the preferred Valentine’s Day gift, some 69 percent of Americans say they prefer chocolate to a bouquet.
So while we may never know why this quaint tradition has stuck around as long as it has, we do know that recipients today are just as thrilled to receive a heart-shaped box of chocolates today as they were 150 years ago.