(iStockphoto)

Richard and George Cadbury, the men who made Valentine’s Day sweet and rich, grew up in a home described as “ascetic, disciplined, and severe.”

This was the 1840s — Victorian times, England.

John Cadbury, the boys’ father, came from a long line of Quakers. He would not allow his family to own a piano or any chair with armrests, nor would he consent to traveling via carriage. “That would have been,” a family biography said, “a weak concession to the flesh.”

Just to state the obvious: The Cadburys did not indulge.

So it’s one of business history’s great ironies that Richard and George Cadbury, Quaker and self-denying to their cores, built a conglomerate of indulgence. By selling delectable chocolates in cardboard boxes with fancy art, even shaping the containers into hearts for Valentine’s Day, the brothers transformed chocolate from a substance people drank for energy or to relieve constipation into a decadent, even sensual, product.

“The Cadburys,” Carol Off wrote in her chocolate history, “found a way to appeal to their ambiguous prudery, playing up the innocence of  chocolate as a sensual indulgence. It was the firm’s marketing genius that first made chocolate a part of Valentine’s Day in Great Britain and a symbol of romantic love.”

For the Cadbury brothers, it was all about survival.

None George Cadbury, chocolate maker. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In 1861, in their mid-20s, they took over their father’s failing tea business. They switched gears to chocolate, perfecting a way to squeeze cocoa butter out of cocoa, which made the stuff tasty without using sugar and other additives.

The Cadburys marketed their cocoa, and later their chocolate bars, much as an organic manufacturer would today.

Their slogan: “Absolutely pure, therefore best.”

Like other businesses that even today must negotiate the pressures of capitalism with the owners’ religious beliefs, the Cadburys had to weigh successfully marketing their product — especially for Valentine’s Day — against their Quaker values.

They went with the means-to-an-end solution, using their profits to treat their workers with benefits and a sort of dignity not seen at the time. Cadbury employees were given free health care, including dental, which historian Charles Dellheim called “especially useful in a chocolate factory.” There were pensions, courses for educational advancement and even swimming lessons.

“The commitment to providing a living wage and job security shaped Cadbury policy,” Dellheim wrote in paper titled “The Creation of a Company Culture.” “The work week was progressive by contemporary standards.” A woman’s workweek was typically 42.5 hours. Men worked 48. After a certain period, employees participated in profit-sharing. (The company was not totally clean, however. Historical accounts dinged the Cadburys for not doing enough to help with cocoa worker conditions and slavery in Africa.)

So obsessive was the company about its culture — and, no doubt, pushing a certain way of life — that the brothers purchased several hundred acres in Bournville, a rural England village, for employees to live and work in a mystical, somewhat strange utopia. They called it the “garden factory.” Author Paul Chrystal described it in “Chocolate,” a history of the industry in Britain:

Residents were provided with a booklet laying down rules for keeping houses and gardens in good order, abstaining from alcohol on the Sabbath, and the advantages of single beds for married couples. The area was alcohol-free, with no pubs and no alcohol sold in local shops, until a licensed members’ bar opened in the Rowheath Pavilion in 1940. This abstinence was a reflection of John Cadbury’s strict Temperance beliefs and a manifestation of his work in social reform, which also included campaigns  for workhouse reform and against industrial pollution, child labour (particularly child chimney sweeps), and animal cruelty.

Employees referred to their bosses as “Mr. George” and “Mr. Richard.”

In addition to employing happy workers, Mr. George and Mr. Richard generated good PR, Dellheim wrote in his paper:

The reports of journalists on Cadburys were overwhelmingly positive but also idealized: Bournville was a model factory where industrial harmony prevailed. “In these stormy days of strikes and lock-outs,” noted the New Age in 1898, “when employers and employed seem to wage a ceaseless war against each other, nothing could be more refreshing than to read of a little community where friendship not enmity is the guiding spirit.” The garden factory also attracted praise and attention at a time when “the mention of a factory does not usually call to mind green fields and sweetly-scented gardens.”

Things change, though. Leaders die — Mr. Richard in 1899, Mr. George in 1922.

The company merged in 1969 with Schweppes, the ginger ale maker. Now Cadbury is owned by food giant Mondelez International, which sells, among other products, Chips Ahoy! cookies.

But Cadbury is still pushing the whole love thing for Valentine’s Day, even advertising a bottle of champagne with a box of chocolates.

“Looking for something special for your Valentine this year?” the company’s website asks. “Nothing says ‘I love you’ quite like a box of Valentines Chocolates from Cadbury!”

Don’t deny yourself.

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