The history of Valentine’s Day chocolate, from Chaucer to Cadbury and beyond.

Valentine’s Day is less than a month away, which means I should probably start thinking about what I’ll give my wife. Maybe some flowers; they’re pretty, just like her. Or that other classic, chocolate. But, wait, why chocolate? Why do we give chocolate on Valentine’s Day? Not to pull a “Good Will Hunting” here, but why not caramels? Or cookies? Or pie? Oh, I wish it were pie. Why do nearly 70 percent of people on Valentine’s Day gift chocolate to their significant other or secret crush? I need to get to the bottom of this, and get to the bottom of this I shall. To the internet!

Turns out, some pretty reputable establishments, like NPR, The History Channel, and The Smithsonian, have looked into this phenomenon too. What’s that they say? Great minds think alike? Yeah, something like that. Anyway, here’s what I learned.

Valentine’s Day is a feast day in the Catholic Church commemorating the lives of several martyrs named “Valentine.” It’s generally understood that none of these men were particularly linked to romantic love, despite an uncorroborated account that one of the Vals (my nickname, not theirs) married folks.

So, why is Valentine’s Day the day of loooooove (said in my best Barry White voice)? The consensus is that Geoffrey Chaucer, the writer of “The Canterbury Tales” (hey, I read that in high school!), linked Valentine’s Day with romantic love in his poem, “Parlement of Foules,” in 1382. In the poem, Chaucer describes St. Valentine’s Day as the time when birds choose their mates. Is that how bird mating works? I don’t think that’s accurate. Wait, it’s a poem. Metaphors. Got it. I guess other writers took notice, as more poems and songs sprang forth. Before long, life imitated art, and Valentine’s Day became a time of gifts for and gestures to your significant other. The thing is, those gifts weren’t chocolates for another 450 years or so.

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Despite the somewhat pervasive belief that chocolate was an aphrodisiac (science says it’s not), it wasn’t until the Victorian age, when sugar became less of an extravagance, that conditions were just right for chocolate to hit the scene as a Valentine’s Day staple. In addition to the economics being optimal, the times were too. Evidently, the buttoned-up Victorians got a real kick out of letting their emotions go for a day, and were really into giving their sweeties gifts decked out in lovey-dovey Cupids.

At this time, a businessman and chocolatier by the name of Richard Cadbury took advantage of this opportunity. You see, Cadbury’s primary business originally revolved around making drinking chocolate. I guess that was all the rage back then. He was somewhat of a pioneer in this industry, and, as a result, came up with a revolutionary process that produced surplus cocoa butter. Wanting to take advantage of this surplus, he decided to use it to produce “eating chocolate.” Today, we’d call it chocolate candy. Pretty savvy move, huh? It gets better. To market this new creation, he sold his eating chocolates in elaborately adorned boxes. Then, near Valentine’s Day, when folks were getting lovestruck and Cupid-crazy, he designed heart-shaped boxes and decorated them with Cupids and flowers.

history of Valentine's Day chocolates and heart-shaped box of chocolate

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Genius, right? It gets even better! To hammer the point home that his chocolates were optimal gifts for lovers, he emphasized that once the consumer was done with the chocolates, the box that once held them could also be used to hold remembrances, love letters, and things of that sort. Incredible! Capitalism at its finest.

Later, in early 20th century America, where the commercial appeal of Valentine’s Day thrived, Russell Stover took Cadbury’s idea to the next level, selling their heart-shaped chocolate boxes to department stores for mass consumption. Today, you can find them all over the place. And that’s, as they say, all she wrote.

Basically, we give chocolate on Valentine’s Day because some savvy businessman took advantage of the commercialization of the feast day of several martyred saints to sell surplus ingredients he had lying around. Pretty romantic stuff, huh? This Valentine’s Day, when you receive that box of chocolate, instead of getting bogged down in this aspect of the history, let me propose an alternative. Think about how good chocolate is, and how much your significant other must like you if he or she gave you something so delicious. Chances are, he or she doesn’t know the history. They just want you to know how special you are to them. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Related Video: A Valentine for Unappreciated Chocolates

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Greg is a Chicago guy who likes to cook, dine, and help others navigate their food choices. Why? Because food is an integral part of our lives, and he's the best version of himself when he's well fed. When he's not writing for Chowhound, he's writing about handling the domestic responsibilities of a husband and stay-at-home parent for his new online community. Visit philosophyofdad.com.
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