4 things we bet you didn’t know about the heart symbol

“I cannot be bought, cannot be sold, even if I’m sometimes made of gold“, goes the famous riddle. The answer is, of course, the heart. But that’s far from being the only puzzle surrounding the ❤. This week, we’re bringing you four little-known facts about one the most widely recognised shapes in the world. Ready to get to the heart of the matter?

1. It has more to do with botany than anatomy

Allegedly. One of the theories around the symbol’s origins suggests that it stems from a plant called silphium that once grew along the North African coastline, near the Greek colony of Cyrene (present-day Libya). Though it didn’t look much, for ancient Greeks and Romans, it was worth its weight in gold. Not only did it serve as a spice, perfume, aphrodisiac and medicine, it was widely used as an early form of birth control.

In fact, this ancient super herb was so critical to the Cyrenian economy that its heart-shaped seed pods adorned most of the city’s coins. But it was silphium’s association with love and sex that’s thought to have popularised the symbol. Unfortunately, however, this popularity led to its downfall. By the first century AD, the plant was cultivated to extinction.

2. It didn’t mean love before the 13th and 14th centuries

That’s according to UCLA medieval literature professor Eric Jager, author of The Book of the Heart. Before that, the shape was generally drawn for decorative purposes, as can be seen on the enamel at Paris’s Musée de Cluny. But with the rise of courtly love, he says, it quickly became the symbol of glorified romance. Not exactly in the form we know today, though.

An early illustration of the amorous heart, points out Dr Yalom, can be seen in a 13th-century French manuscript called The Romance of the Pear, and resembles a pine cone, pear or aubergine, held with its narrow end pointing upward. In one instance, a kneeling lover offers such a heart to a standing lady, while in another, a lady in a pink dress hands a similar heart to a young man as a “heart offering”.

3. It exploded thanks to a Florentine jurist

“In the Middle Ages, the pine-cone-shaped heart was represented with a rounded base. It was only during the early years of the 14th century that the scalloped shape of the St. Valentine heart, with a fold or dent in the base, made its appearance,” explained the late Pierre Vinken, author of The Shape of the Heart. And make an appearance it did.

An illustration from Documenti d’amore, an early 14th-century chivalrous poem written by notary-slash-poet Francesco Barberino, features a naked cupid as he showers bystanders with arrows and roses from a horse wearing a wreath of hearts. The poem went viral, and soon enough, other artists started adopting the scalloped heart-shape in their works, from visual artworks to tapestries.

4. It’ became a verb in 1977

The “I ❤ NY” logo was born at the height of New York City’s economic crisis in the mid-1970s. Back then, the city was much harder to love than it is today, with litter piling up on the streets, spiking crime and corruption rates and rampant drug abuse. Plus, the occasional 25-hour blackout with the ’Son of Sam’ murders in full swing.

In a desperate effort to boost tourism, the state hired advertising agency Wells Rich Greene to develop a marketing campaign and recruited graphic designer Milton Glaser to create a logo. Glaser took a cab to ride through the city on his way to the campaign meeting, sketched “I ❤ NY” with a red crayon on the back of an envelope, and the rest is history.

“With the logo, Glaser extended the heart’s meaning beyond romantic love to embrace the realm of civic feelings and thereby opened the gateway to new uses,” the late cultural historian Marilyn Yalom pointed out in her book, The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love. Watch her TEDxPaloAlto talk here or check out the epoch-making doodle here.

2 January 2023