How a Naked Woman, a Horse and a Family in Belgium Created Godiva Chocolate

America's most coveted confection

If you're not among the 54 percent of Americans planning on celebrating Valentine's Day, you may wish to reconsider. Some 53 percent of women surveyed a few years ago reported that if their spouses or significant others failed to buy them a Valentine's Day gift, they'd dump them. This threat may lurk behind the fact that close to half of Valentine's gift buyers opt for chocolates, and if you're going to do that, you might as well pop for Godiva

Photo: Nick Ferrari

There are pricier chocolates on the market—and certainly cheaper ones—but no other confectionery brand in America rings with that inimitable mix of occasion and indulgence quite like Godiva. As Godiva marketing vp Michelle Chin put it, "We always hear that consumers say 'wow' when they see that gold box."

For the record, the box (known as the ballotin) was invented by Belgian confectioner Jean Neuhaus in 1915—but the gold foil version has been the Godiva brand's cornerstone since its founding 89 years ago. More on that in a second. First, we should talk about the naked lady on the horse.

In 1057 A.D. (give or take) a feudal lord named Leofric, Earl of Mercia, was notorious for imposing high taxes on the peasantry who lived under his thumb in present-day Coventry, England. Lady Godiva, Leofric's wife, had repeatedly implored him to loosen his avaricious grip—until finally, in the heat of frustration, Leofric said he'd lower the taxes on the day that she rode a horse naked through the center of town. As the legend goes, Lady Godiva did precisely that.

In 1926 chocolatier Pierre Draps began making fine chocolates for shops around Brussels. When his sons Pierre and Joseph took over the business after World War II, they decided to sell their confections under a proprietary name. It was Pierre's wife who suggested Godiva, an association the PR folks have since explained as "timeless values balanced with modern boldness." Lady Godiva came ashore in America in 1966 when Philadelphia's Wanamaker's Department Store began selling its sweets—and teaching suitors that one very good way into his paramour's heart was that gold box.

And it still is. "Godiva took the iconic ballotin box and made it their symbol," said international chocolate expert Clay Gordon. "It's what cemented the connection between Godiva and luxury chocolates in the American mind." Originally a baroque affair portraying Lady Godiva in full armor, the box was toned down a bit in 2007. Godiva has also substituted the original baker's string for a gold ribbon. The marketing wisdom here is that the packaging becomes the presentation. "There's no wrapping required," Chin said.

Nope, just a credit card, since a box of 36 chocolates, Romeo, will set you back 50 bucks.