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Give the gift of a vintage heart-shaped box
By Gayle Manley

Tokens of love take many forms of expression at Valentine’s Day. Flowers, heartfelt cards, jewelry gifts and romantic dinners all express the sentiment of the day. But statistically, according to the National Retail Federation, gift-giving Cupids choose buying candy more than any other category of Valentine’s spending. Further, in recent years, more than 35 million heart-shaped boxes of candy alone are sold during this sweet season. Ever wonder where and when this delicious tradition and the notion of a heart-shaped box began?

It all starts with chocolate of course. Around 1830, merchant John Cadbury owned a shop and rented a factory in Birmingham, England, where he sold and produced cocoa and “drinking chocolate.” He prepared his cocoa by hand using a mortar and pestle to crush the imported cocoa beans.

John’s sons, Richard and George took over the business when the company was struggling. George’s talents lay in manufacturing while Richard provided sales, marketing and artistic talent. They expended long hours at labor and lived frugally while searching for a breakthrough product. Through their combined efforts and determination, a method was developed to produce “cocoa essence” and to improve the taste and quality of their “eating chocolate.”

In parallel, Richard Cadbury began designing and decorating candy boxes with romantic motifs that appealed to Victorian customers. Even without a patent, he is credited by numerous sources as the creator of the heart-shaped box. The small pictures on his early boxes were designed to be cut out by children for their scrapbooks. His creative inspiration came from his personal paintings, drawings of his children, and popular Victorian themes such as cupids or rosebuds/florals.

As Cadbury’s decorative boxes evolved to a more elaborate level, velvet and silk materials were used in their construction. The Cadbury Brothers fancy boxed assortments of “eating chocolate” became famous and would forever change the confectionery industry and the Valentine’s holiday.

In the 1930s, American candy makers began heavily promoting Valentine’s Day in advertising campaigns and selling heart-shaped candy boxes. Russell Stover (Kansas City) sold one-pound heart-shaped boxes for a single dollar. Prices of their chocolate-filled heart boxes remained moderate through the years. In the early 1950s they ranged from 75 cents to $7.50. The company used honeycomb inserts inside their boxes to cover the scrumptious chocolates and preserve their freshness and rich taste. One of the most popular Russell Stover boxes, the Secret Lace Heart, became affectionately known as “the Lingerie Box.” Its delicate black lace over red satin has a strong following; the design has been a mainstay in Russell Stover’s Valentine’s line that continues today.

Whitman’s (Philadelphia) also started selling heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day in the 1930s. The Company coined a catchy-phrase which would become a standard in their ads for the next 20 years: “A woman never forgets the man who remembers.” They promoted February sales of their well-known “Whitman’s Sampler” box too by dressing it up for the occasion with a heart-motif band.

Candy brands touted heart-box construction, distinctive designs and eye-appeal in ads to differentiate their products. For example, a Whitman’s 1930s ad states: “There’s a big difference in heart boxes. When you give a Whitman’s Heart Box, she knows you’ve given the best.” Typically, heart box bases were constructed of paper board and then embellished with the respective company’s choice of trims. Manufacturers used lace accented by rick-rack or glitter, satin ruffles and such to frame the box’s smooth or scalloped bottom edge. Some brands added a special touch by affixing a lace-look paper edging around the box’s inside rim.

For most buyers, the attractiveness of the heart box lid was the key selling point. Corsages of plastic/silk or polyester flowers, fancy ribbons, lace and even toys were used as embellishments. Candy box lids were padded with fabric, satin, pleated or gathered ribbon, or luxurious velvet. Elegant foil finishes — lustrous, brushed, or embossed — were also produced. Depending on the era, embossed boxes bore dainty chintz-like floral designs, Art Deco patterns or large sprays of roses.

Luckily for collectors, people have repurposed their empty boxes to store hankies, love letters, buttons, shoe clips, jewelry, paper scraps, ribbons, lace trims, old greeting cards and other keepsakes. At estate sales, finding what’s inside an old candy box can be an added treasure and offer insight into the owner’s life or times.

One Valentine enthusiast celebrates this amorous season by inviting the public to view his stunning collection of carefully-preserved candy boxes. At George J. Brooks Florist (Brattleboro, Vt.,), Proprietor Jim Andrews incorporates vintage heart candy boxes into shop displays. This year, visitors will be treated to an expanded display which showcases nearly 60 vintage boxes. The collection spans the 1930s through 1990s thereby encompassing a variety of colors, sizes, and confectioners. In seeing the collection, observers will note design changes from era to era and a surprising array of materials and embellishments.

As a 40-year collector of all-things-Valentine, Andrews has considerable knowledge on the subject of ephemera and other holiday collectibles. He mentioned that while red may have been the most consistent heart-box color seen over the years, orchid and blue are among the rarest and choicest for collectors. Blue boxes tend to command higher prices whenever and wherever they are found. Pink and yellow boxes were also manufactured in lesser quantities and for a shorter period of time. If a vintage box is found accompanied by a company’s original protective packaging, its collectible value can increase by 10 to 15 percent.

Anderson also told a favorite story about “the one that got away.” He entered a bid in an online auction for an antique hand-painted heart box, possibly a Cadbury original. With high hopes to win, he raised his bid to $250 at which point he surrendered; the heart box sold at $575. Andrews suggested that joining a collector’s club such as the National Valentine Collectors Association (www.valentinecollectors.com) is a great source of enjoyment and learning about Valentine ephemera.

As the late Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Treat your someone-special to a heart-shaped candy box filled with luscious chocolates. The gift will surely delight your loved one today and perhaps the beautiful box will become a keepsake for many more tomorrows.

2/7/2020
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