Each year on February 14, people of all ages in many countries across the world exchange cards, chocolate, flowers and other gifts with friends and family on Valentine’s Day. How did this tradition begin and where did it get its name?
Valentine was a young man who lived in 3rd Century Rome. Popular belief tells that Valentine was a priest imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians who were persecuted by the Romans. Legend has it that while he was in prison, Valentine healed his jailer’s daughter. On the night before his execution, her wrote her a letter and signed it, “Your Valentine.” Little is really known about Valentine except that he died on February 14 and is buried near Rome, Italy. He was later granted sainthood by the Anglican Church and became known ever after as Saint Valentine.
Valentine’s Day began as a ‘feast day’ in Christianity. Feast days are holy days set aside to honor Christian saints. The first record of Saint Valentine’s Day evolving into a day associated with love is a piece of writing by English author, Geoffrey Chaucer in 1382. By the 18th Century it had become an occasion in which love was expressed with the exchange of flowers and sweets and the sending of greeting cards, known as ‘valentines’.
The British Library in London holds the oldest known surviving valentine, sent in 1415 by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife, while she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The exchange of valentine cards became popular during the Victorian Era in Europe (1837-1901)when elaborate, hand-made cards were the fashion.
The first mass-produced valentines in the United States are credited to Esther Howland of Massachusetts, who in the mid-1800’s created the first valentine card business, The New England Valentine Company. Today, the remembrance exchanged most often on Valentine’s Day is not flowers or chocolates, but the valentine card.
Chocolate in the way we think of it when we tear open a wrapper or lift the top off a box, is very different than the way this delicious treat starts out. Chocolate begins as the fruit of the cocoa tree, a small (13–26 ft. tall) evergreen tree. Native to Central and South America, the cocoa plant produces seeds that are used to create cocoa powder and chocolate.
Dating back as far as 1400 B.C., chocolate was originally served only as a drink, and a bitter one at that. Spanish explorers visiting Mexico were introduced to chocolate by the Aztec people at the Court of Montezuma in the 1500’s. When chocolate arrived back in Spain in the 1600’s, sugar was added to sweeten it. Its popularity soared as it spread across the royal courts of Europe.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), chocolate production became much more efficient and less costly. It was no longer a treat that only the wealthy could afford. It became so popular that people considered it to be a staple in their diet. At this point, chocolate was still being consumed as a liquid. It wasn’t until producers began experimenting with new techniques that chocolate appeared in solid form.
As the processes for chocolate making continued to improve, so did its texture and flavor. In 1815, Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten invented a process which reduced its bitterness. A few years thereafter, he created a press to remove about half the natural fat (cacao butter), which made chocolate more consistent in quality. This product became known as ‘Dutch cocoa.’ In 1875, milk chocolate was created by mixing a powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé with chocolate liquor. Chocolate was further improved by Rudolphe Lindt when he invented a machine that better distributed cocoa butter within chocolate, giving it improved texture and flavor.
If you are a lover of chocolate (and who isn’t?!), the names mentioned above probably sound familiar to you. The Lindt, Nestlé, Cadbury and Hershey chocolates we enjoy today all got their start in the 1800’s.