Photo: Bob.Fornal, Flickr
What did it mean to be going steady in 1948? On Valentine's Day, it might have meant snuggling up to your sweetheart in the front seat of a two-tone Pontiac, listening to Dinah Shore on the radio and opening an embroidered cardboard box from Schraft's to reveal a massive pound cake painted with pink-and-white frosting.
Wrapping up one's affections in a heart-shaped box tied with a big red bow has been common Valentine's Day practice since the late 19th century, but chocolate's a relatively recent addition to the love-struck holiday scene. Before the advent of affordable, mass-produced chocolate treats, most celebrants made do with an array of other sugary confections, including marshmallows, candied cashews, jellied fruit, honey glycerin drops, butterscotch chips, coconut strips, caramels, toffee and pound cakes.
"Boxes of sweetness will sell whether they are advertised or not," a New York Times marketing columnist decreed in 1965, summarizing the inseparability of sweet treats and Valentine's Day.
Back in Great Britain, where the Roman festival was popularly resurrected in the 1600s, handmade cards were considered the quintessential Valentine's gift. Early Americans initially followed suit, exchanging simple cards festooned with arrows and bows. But as the New York Times reported approvingly in 1894, "Valentines have taken on some new phases. There are fewer of the old-fashioned lace paper atrocities, and fewer sentimental ones, in which heart and dart and love and dove are the chief ingredients."
Instead, the correspondent continued, the city's inventive confectioners had found new ways for the smitten to render their feelings edible. A heart-shaped satin box with a fitted glass top – described as a "dainty casket" – housed a half-inch of pale pink fondant, edged with clusters of candy roses. Another box, "composed of the very choicest candy," was emblazoned with the slogan, "Will you be my Valentine?"
In 1902, heart-shaped candy boxes had become so popular that the paper didn't attempt to list all the available varieties: "It would be impossible to mention all the pretty conceits appropriate for valentines to be found at the confectioner. Heart-shaped boxes are among the most elaborate. They may be had of a size to hold five pounds, or so small that they will scarcely contain an eighth of a pound," the Times reported.
Candy-makers didn't have a monopoly on heart-shaped boxes: Florists adopted the shtick, too. In 1933, when most paramours' paychecks couldn't cover the cost of roses, florists packed armfuls of violets into red boxes adorned with angel cutouts.
But the vast majority of courted women expected candy on Valentine's Day, a preference in keeping with the nation's tastes. "There is something in American life that demands an extra amount of sugar," the Times theorized. In the first years of the 20th century, domestic candy consumption doubled, with Americans, in 1910, spending $500,000,000 on sweets – and that was before most candy fans had added chocolate to their repertoires.
For most of western history, chocolate was consumed only by the very wealthy. But new production techniques borrowed from other booming industries drastically reduced the cost of chocolate manufacturing, allowing Milton S. Hershey to make his first bar in 1895. The Hershey Bar jumpstarted a bit of a golden age for mass-produced chocolate, during which brownies, white chocolate and chocolate coating made their first appearances.
Chocolate's popularity was cemented during World War II, when billions of bars were distributed to servicemen. Returning vets, infatuated with the snack, presumably decided their darlings deserved milk chocolate too: Heart-shaped boxes of all sizes began to be dominated by chocolate-covered creams, chocolate-covered nuts and plain chocolate nuggets. By the 1970s, the National Confectioners Association reported that chocolate accounted for 90 percent of Valentine's sweets sold.
The recession didn't impede holiday chocolate sales in 2009, with lovers buying more than 58 million pounds worth for Valentine's Day. But should the price of a heart-shaped box seem a bit too steep this year, there's always frosted pound cake.