It’s hard to not think of Valentine’s Day without picturing red hearts, right? But have you ever wondered how the symbol of a heart came to be? Or how it became so prevalent in our society as an emblem of love?
The idea and symbol of the heart was important for various ancient cultures and held many meanings. The ancient Greeks believed the heart supplied the body with heat, while the ancient Egyptians thought the heart was the center of life and death. It was also considered the residence of the soul and embodied reason, thought, and emotion. The symbol of the heart may have originated as a depiction of the heart-shaped silphium seed, used in ancient times for medicinal reasons. The heart is also believed to have represented a stylized ivy leaf, as is evident in the art of the ancient Greeks, like this black-figure Terracotta amphora (jar), signed by Andokides [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.30a,b].
During medieval times, the depiction of heart on playing cards [Victoria & Albert Museum, E.988-1920] popularized the symbol. Consequently, hearts appeared on objects ranging from jewelry, paintings, coats of arms, and even gravestones, as a symbol of love, fidelity, and bravery. Often, they were depicted in the color red, representative of love and passion.
In early American pressed glass, the heart appears as symbol and decorative element. The design of this blue pressed cup plate [60.4.711] includes two hearts pierced by arrows surrounded by flowers and four lyres. The hearts allude to Cupid, god of love, and the lyres represent Apollo, god of music and poetry.
In this Compote [50.4.411] hearts are incorporated into the design of the glass. They do not necessarily symbolize love and passion, but are integral to the pressed pattern as a whole.
So when did the use of the heart in art transition from symbolic to purely decorative?
While the answer remains a mystery, one explanation for its common use in pressed glass may be found by looking at pressing technology. Although the pressing of glass into molds can be traced back to ancient times, the process of mechanization was perfected in the United States in the 1820s. This was incredibly influential in the history of glass, affecting cultural tastes in both America and overseas.
It was an instance in which technology influenced design. Intricate patterns concealed flaws and blemishes created by the early pressing machine. Additionally, pressed glass designs imitated cut glass for a fraction of the cost, and images that one could not obtain by cutting were now achievable in the new technology. The curved lines of repeating hearts, or the pierced hearts and lyres of the pressed plate, for example, would be much more difficult to achieve in cut glass.
Although this is just a guess as to why hearts are prevalent in American pressed glass, the evidence that they were used often in pressed designs is unmistakable. To see more objects featuring hearts, be sure to look at the Collection Set Hearts on American Pressed Glass.