Chocolate Is Not Actually an Aphrodisiac: So Why The Heart-Shaped Box?

Most people know that Valentine’s Day is a significant holiday in the United States and beyond, and that Americans buy and eat enormous amounts of chocolate leading up to this day. As evidence, last Valentine’s Day, Starbucks created three entirely new chocolate-flavored drinks for Valentine’s Day: the Molten Chocolate Latte, Molten Chocolate Frappuccino and Molten Hot Chocolate (The Fiscal Times), and 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate were sold (The Fiscal Times). Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate are particularly known for being associated with the holiday.

Russell Stover is incredibly well known for its heart-shaped chocolate box and has capitalized on this fact in their advertisements for their various heart-shaped chocolate boxes, suggesting that it is not Valentine’s Day without one, and furthermore, that men are expected to get them for their wives, girlfriends, and romantic interests (note that Valentine’s Day is highly gendered, heteronormative, and even sexist). Hershey’s and Ferrero Rocher make similar products:

6801218189_687e23ea35_zImage source, shared under Creative Commons license 2.0.

6801230057_6cbe144623_zImage source, shared under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Of course, chocolate is associated with other holidays, including Halloween, Christmas, and Easter. Understandably, this might make one think that chocolates are given out on Valentine’s Day simply because they are festive, delicious, and associated with celebration.

But chocolate and Valentine’s Day seem to have a particularly special relationship, stronger than the relationship of chocolate and these other holidays. In fact, these other holidays are really associated with sweets more broadly: for example, we give out jelly beans during Easter and candy canes during Christmas. On the other hand, 75% of the $1 billion spent on candy for Valentine’s Day is spent on chocolate (NPR’s “How Chocolate Became A Sweet (But Not So Innocent) Consort To Valentine’s Day). I will argue that chocolate is specifically associated with Valentine’s Day because of the origin of this holiday and because of the commercialization of the holiday. So how did this holiday originate, why is love associated with chocolate and to such excess, and how did all of this culminate in the heart-shaped box?

An NPR article “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day”, outlines the history of how the Catholic Pope Gelasius I merged the the Roman festival of Lupercalia with the Catholic church’s celebration of two St. Valentines, both Catholic martyrs murdered by the ancient Romans, in order to dispel celebration of paganism promoted by Lupercalia. Thus a “drunken revel” was converted to a holy day — though notably one centered on “fertility and love” (“The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day”).

Because of this unique linking to the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, Valentine’s Day is distinct from other holidays that center around chocolate because it focuses on (romantic) indulgence — sin, even. Later, chief mistress of Louis XV Madame du Barry (The Smithsonian’s “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life”) apparently used chocolate as an aphrodisiac, and Marie Antoinette even brought her own chocolate-maker to the palace (“How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life”). These French royals and their companions indicate that chocolate, by this point, was associated to different degrees with love, sexuality, sin, indulgence, and excess.

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Image source, shared under Creative Commons license 2.0.

This connection was commercialized by Richard Cadbury, who made the first heart-shaped box of chocolates in the 1860s (“So Why Do We Give Chocolate for Valentine’s Day?”).

That is, Cadbury didn’t actually patent the heart-shaped box, but is widely believed to have made the first one (History’s “Celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Box of Chocolates”). Interestingly, Cadbury marketed the boxes as having a dual purpose: when the chocolates had been eaten, the box itself was beautiful enough to keep and store things, particularly mementos and particularly love-related mementos, such as love letters (History’s “Celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Box of Chocolates”)

Even today, many Victorian-era heart-shaped Cadbury boxes are considered treasured family heirlooms (History’s “Celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Box of Chocolates”). And Russell Stover makes a heart-shaped box inspired by women’s lingerie, originally created by Russell Stover’s wife Clara Stover in the 1920s (“How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life”). It remains one of their most popular products.

Hershey’s kisses candies launched in 1907 (supposedly named after the “kissing” sound produced by the machine that dropped them onto conveyor belts), and later, by Whitman’s and Russell Stover, both famous for their assortments (“How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life”).

4811966078_bb1b83d15e_zImage source, shared under Creative Commons license 2.0.

More pessimistically, something about these chocolates feels not just like a confession of love, but actually a “tool” for acquiring some romantic attention or even sexual favor (“How Chocolate Became A Sweet (But Not So Innocent) Consort To Valentine’s Day).

Despite all this, amazingly, science has actually found fairly little proof that chocolate is in fact an aphrodisiac (perhaps a psychological one, at best) ( “How Chocolate Became A Sweet (But Not So Innocent) Consort To Valentine’s Day). Our insistence that it does have libido-boosting properties is likely the result of the history outlined above.

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