The Bittersweet History of Valentine’s Day Sweets

by Jennifer Pustz

Preparation for Valentine’s Day seems to start earlier every year. The seasonal candy aisle in the local grocery store or pharmacy says goodbye to candy canes and red and green foil-wrapped sweets just in time to make room for heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and the ubiquitous “conversation hearts.” Valentine’s candy has been part of this celebration of love for many decades despite its connection with two ingredients that have very difficult histories: chocolate and sugar.

Europeans discovered chocolate during their conquest of the Americas, and its story—like any good love story—has been complex since this first encounter. The Aztecs consumed chocolate as a beverage and this preparation was transferred, along with shipments of cacao beans, across the ocean to Spanish royalty and ultimately throughout Europe. The love of chocolate made a return trip across the ocean when European colonists brought the practice of drinking chocolate with them to places like Boston, where consuming chocolate became a mark of high social status. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has several examples in its collection of eighteenth-century silver chocolate pots and porcelain mugs made specifically for the preparation and drinking of chocolate.

Many of the affluent men and women enjoying this beverage became wealthy due to their role in the sweetening of chocolate. Sugar shares its history with the slave trade, the economic growth of the North American colonies, and many New England families who owned and operated sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands. One family, that of Isaac Royall, Sr., lived in an opulent Georgian mansion less than a mile from Tufts University’s Medford campus. (In fact, a portion of the Tufts campus was at one time part of the Royall estate.) Royall owned a sugar plantation on the island of Antigua and following a series of slave revolts, droughts, and other natural disasters, decided to bring his family back to their Massachusetts home. Among the fragments retrieved during an archaeological dig were pieces of porcelain chocolate mugs.

It wasn’t until many decades later that chocolate emerged as a more widely-consumed beverage, became available in bars and other shapes, and was seen as a symbol of love presented in a heart-shaped box. Milton Hershey is widely recognized as the genius behind mass-produced commercial chocolate. He founded the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1894 and introduced the Hershey’s Kiss in 1907. As for the marriage of chocolate and Valentine’s Day? This has been attributed to the British chocolatier Richard Cadbury, who began selling the now ubiquitous heart-shaped boxes of chocolate in the 1860s.

In addition to sweetening bitter chocolate for consumption in truffles and Kisses, sugar is the base of many other popular Valentine’s Day sweets. In 1902, the New England Confectionary Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, known as Necco, sold its first “conversation hearts.” These sweet and tart little candies were printed with a variety of messages, from the fairly innocent “BE MINE” to a more suggestive “KISS ME.” More than one hundred years later, Necco still manufactures the candy, but has updated some of the messages to include “LOL” and “YOU ROCK.”

As those of us who study at the Friedman School are well aware, chocolate and sugar continue to be controversial foods. The chocolate industry is fraught with issues like deforestation and unfair labor practices, and sugar is under attack from all sides due to its likely role in the obesity epidemic, as evident in the title of Gary Taubes’ new book What Not to Eat: The Case Against Sugar. Despite their associations with difficult social issues, chocolate and sugar continue to tempt us, but today’s world does provide us with choices. From fair trade chocolate to lower-sugar options, we can still indulge our Valentine’s Day traditions—even when we are aware of the long and bittersweet history of these favorite sweets.

Jennifer Pustz is a first-year NICBC student in the dual MS-MPH program. A public historian by training, she is also on the Board of Directors of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts, which is open to the public for tours between the end of May through the end of October.

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