Hearts abound on February 14, and few symbols (and gifts) are more widely associated with a holiday than heart-shaped boxes of chocolate are with Valentine’s Day.
Chocolates became trendy in the mid-19th century when the first chocolate bar was made by British company J.S. Fry & Sons by combining cacao powder with sugar and cacao butter to make a rich, melt-in-your-mouth treat that was markedly different than the gritty and greasy drinking chocolate that was losing popularity in Europe. Within a few years, competitor Cadbury introduced the first box of chocolates. It was called the “Fancy Box” and it didn’t take long to become wildly popular.
The marriage of chocolate and heart-shaped boxes seemed a natural progression, but the National Valentine Collectors Association says that heart-shaped boxes actually predate chocolate boxes. Various heart-shaped vessels, including “betrothal pendants” and silver boxes in the shape of hearts, were popularized a century earlier. There even were heart-shaped porcelain boxes as well as ones for sewing.
Having already introduced a chocolate box, Richard Cadbury marketed the first Valentine’s Day box in 1861. It was filled with delicious chocolates, and later could be saved as a keepsake to store special notes or other mementos, according to the North American Packaging Association. Furthermore, the gift fit with Victorian sensibilities in that it was demurely suggestive, NPR reports. Its introduction coincided perfectly with Valentine’s Day, which also soared in popularity around the same time.
Giving chocolate on Valentine’s Day also proved popular in North America. The American chocolate company Hershey’s introduced its Hershey’s Kisses in 1907, and in 1912 the Whitman’s Sampler arrived. In the 1920s, Russell Stover unveiled their own heart-shaped boxes, which today still include the “Red Foil Heart” and the “Secret Lace Heart.” Russell Stover has since become the No. 1 boxed chocolate brand in the United States. Today, more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes holding 58 million pounds of chocolate are sold each year and they have become a quintessential symbol of Valentine’s Day celebrations.