This time of year, you can hardly leave your house without seeing hearts everywhere. Or at least the particular combination of curves and a point that we call a heart. Whether you love or hate Valentine’s Day, you have to admit that the heart symbol is the greatest accidental logo in history. What other shape represents an entire emotion? The history of the heart’s tie with romance is richer than you might expect.
Why link hearts with love?
Technically, of course, love happens in our brains, not our hearts. So why do we say that the beating muscle in our chests inspires those warm feelings? Probably in part because we really can feel our hearts beat faster at the sight of that special someone. We’ve believed in the power of the heart for thousands of years, in every corner of the world.
Many ancient civilizations described the heart as the emotional and spiritual center of the body. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Teotihuacans (in ancient Mexico) believed that the heart housed morality, life, and the soul. Scientists have even found Cro-Magnon heart drawings scrawled on rock walls. (The meaning is a mystery, though, so it doesn’t count as a valentine.) The Romantic period was thousands of years away, but the link between hearts and love was already beginning.
How the heart got its shape
You’ve probably noticed that a real heart doesn’t match the symbol’s lobed top and distinct pointed bottom. Popular theories abound to explain why a heart doesn’t look like, well, a heart. Some say it is meant to look like a human heart, but the model was malformed or the artist wasn’t that great. Others will tell you the heart shape is actually suggestive of breasts, buttocks, or even genitalia. The most likely answer, though, seems to be that the heart symbol isn’t based on any part of the body at all. It was probably inspired by plants.
Several heart-shaped plants have long-standing ties to affairs of the heart. Silphium, a North African plant with heart-shaped seed pods, was so important to the local economy that it was engraved on currency. Silphium was a very effective contraceptive, so it could easily have inspired an association between the heart shape and sex.
Love and lust are two different feelings, of course. Other plants helped lend emotional meaning to the heart shape. Ivy and fig plants became associated with meanings such as faithfulness (because of ivy’s evergreen leaves) or enlightenment. The heart-shaped leaves of both of these plants may have helped strengthen the connection between the shape and loving ideals.
Visions and Valentines
The Catholic Church helped popularize the heart, signifying sacred love rather than romantic. The legend goes that in the 1600s, Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque saw a heart surrounded by thorns in a vision. The Sacred Heart symbol spread wherever Catholic churches were found (which is to say, the entire Western world).
Once Sacred Hearts were decorating churches throughout Europe, romantic heart valentines weren’t far behind. Victorian style inspired many of the qualities we still associate with valentines. Their handmade cards were ornate, feminine creations decorated with layers of lace, hearts, and pictures. The United States printed its first commercial Valentine’s Day cards in the 1840s. Hallmark got involved in 1913, and the rest is history.
These days, hearts are expanding even further into everyday life. In 1977, the heart was used as a logogram (a picture meant to be read as a word) for the first time, on the classic souvenir “I ❤ NY” shirt. We use hearts to mark our favorite Tweets and Instagram photos. Like the ancient Romans, we even use hearts as a symbol for life—or at least the “lives” left in a video game.
Hearts are everywhere, especially in February, and yet they never seem to become a total cliché. Whether it appears in a stained glass window or doodled in a middle-school notebook, the heart has become an essential part of how we capture the many kinds of love.