Valentine’s Day

The Victorian Origins of the Heart-Shaped Chocolate Box

How this heart-shaped container went from a 19th-century fad to a Valentine's Day staple.

February 12, 2023
Photo by Rocky Luten

This article is a part of Chocolate Week—seven days of recipes and stories, all chocolate—presented by our friends at Guittard. A fifth-generation family business, Guittard has been crafting an array of chocolate offerings (like top-quality baking chips, cocoa powder, and baking bars) in San Francisco since 1868.

Around this time each year I find myself craving boxed chocolates from the corner store. I’ve gone to plenty of small-batch chocolate factories, tasted many carefully curated single-origin chocolate bars, and, for a time, snobbishly refused to eat any confection under 70 percent cocoa. Those chocolates all have their place, but sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants, and my heart wants cellophane-wrapped, caramel-filled consumer history packaged in a pretty little heart-shaped box.

A Romance For the Ages

Originally celebrated as an early springtime Christian feast day honoring the eponymous Roman martyr, St. Valentine’s Day (or Valentine’s Day) became a cross-cultural excuse for public displays of affection as early as the fourteenth century. The subsequent centuries were lousy with Valentine-related poetry and literary references—including the well-known “roses are red” line, which scholars trace to an epic poem by Edmund Spenser. The candy-coated holiday as we know today really found its stride with the Victorians and their obsession with two things: romance and industrialization.

By the late 1840s, much of the English-speaking world knew about Valentine’s Day. After centuries of trade and colonization, commercially produced chocolate had spread far from the equatorial "cocoa belt," and was newly available to cultures around the globe. The Industrial Revolution, which wrapped up around the start of the Victorian era, produced all manner of machines, inventions, and infrastructure that made commercially produced chocolates and factory-printed Valentine’s Day cards—amongst many other everyday items, like shoes and matches—more accessible to consumers. Once painstakingly produced by hand, patents for emulsification methods, grinders and refiners, molds and forms, and assembly operations turned chocolate into its own industry by the end of the nineteenth century.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

The English Affair

While elaborately decorated boxes of chocolates had existed for at least a century, it was a sentimental Englishman who first connected them to Valentine’s Day. Richard Cadbury (yes, that Cadbury), chocolate-maker, philanthropist, and (I’m going to go ahead and assume) hopeless romantic, is credited with inventing and marketing the first heart-shaped box of chocolates in 1868. A few years earlier, he and his brother took over the family business, which got its start selling tea, coffee, and what Victorians called “drinking chocolate” (aka hot cocoa).

In addition to narrowing the company’s focus to chocolate, the brothers also introduced a line called “Fancy Boxes” that used a novel method for processing cocoa. This process, imported from the chocolate-obsessed Netherlands, ground the cacao nibs into finer, less noticeable pieces and better separated the cocoa butter, resulting in a more palatable “eating chocolate.” Aware of the average Victorians’ affinity for ornamentation, Cadbury designed the boxes himself with sentimental scenes including idyllic landscapes, delicate flowers, and, reportedly, drawings of his own cherubic children. After eating the chocolate, consumers could then use the heart-shaped containers to hold other beloved objects.

Unfortunately for Cadbury, he failed to see his own genius and opted not to patent his heart-shaped box. The concept became a gift to chocolatiers everywhere, including those across the pond in America where lower transportation costs broadened the sweet’s consumer base even further. Despite our nation’s very famous break-up with the monarchy, nineteenth-century Americans were heavily influenced by Victorian-era cultural practices and European food trends, such as gifting chocolates and other confections to one’s valentine. Well-established American chocolate companies—including Baker, Ghirardelli, Whitman’s, Schrafft’s, and later Russell Stover—already produced chocolate-covered candies, but jumped at the opportunity for a new seasonal rebrand of their own assorted box offerings.

Variety is the Spice of Life (& Chocolates)

Were you to open a box of nineteenth-century chocolates, you would likely recognize many of the flavors hiding within: chocolate ganache, orange, fruity creams, and marzipan. Some of these ingredients endured, but over time, changing cultural tastes—on both sides of the Atlantic—influenced a variety of new chocolate fillings.

In the late 1800s, as the price of sugar dropped, American candy makers developed boiled sugar caramels that could be made cheaply and in bulk. In fact, Milton S. Hershey (the guy with his name on a chocolate bar) first found success with caramel-making; he later sold his business to the American Caramel Company monopoly, but kept his subsidiary, Hershey Chocolate Company, which had grown in popularity thanks to his chocolate-covered caramels.

A rarer find in contemporary boxed assortments, chocolate cherry cordials trace their origins to a French chocolate-coated confection called griottes (the French word for sour cherry). Early American versions soaked the cherries in sweetened alcohol, but the twentieth-century temperance movement campaigned hard for the bright red, booze-free Maraschino variety and the substitution stuck.

In 1876, Connecticut-based inventors Edward Smith and E. Chapman Maltby debuted a machine for shredding coconut at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Consumer demand for the tropical fruit increased over the next decade, drawing the interest of several businessmen including Leopold Schepp (later known as the Coconut King of New York) and Franklin Baker (founder of the retail brand Baker’s Coconut). Now flush with shredded coconut, these brands were eager to locate new uses for their product and found hungry customers through targeted recipe book promotions. The new ingredient was an affordable hit and found its way into our heart-shaped chocolate boxes soon after.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

The Ever-Changing Sampler

After American soldiers returned from fighting in World War I, demand for milk chocolate skyrocketed and led to a variety of new bar-style and covered candy varieties. Today’s assorted boxes and samplers reflect America’s long-standing love affair with the lighter chocolate while incorporating darker options for renewed consumer interest that peaked again in the early 2000s. Today, there’s truly something for everyone with fillings such as nut clusters, maple fudge, buttercreams and truffles, molasses chews, toffees and nougats, all types of fruit-studded creams, as well as the classics. After polishing off the coconut rounds in my own box this year and convincing my children that the vanilla creams would taste horrible, I sampled an oblong-shaped "brownie batter," a twenty-first century flavor that warms even my chocolate history-loving heart.

What's your favorite Valentine's Day chocolate box flavor? Tell us in the comments below!

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1 Comment

NYanne February 13, 2023
For this holiday (Valentine's Day)I share the author's preference for the cellophane wrapped heart shaped box of chocolates at the corner store. Russel STover is my brand of choice. I love the milk and dark choco;ate vanilla caramels. I would turn dowb a Cella chocolate covered cherry either.