It struck me today that I didn't know what a Harlequin is. That little guy on the spine of Harlequin books? Merriam-Webster says, "a. a character in comedy and pantomime with a shaved head, masked face, variegated tights, and wooden sword b. Buffoon." Wiki has a bit more information. Harlequin, the anglicized version of Arlecchino, was the name of a stock character in the Commedia dell'arte, which was an improvisational form of theater popular in Italy in the 16th century. Harlequin is a jokester, described as stupid and glutinous. He carried a baton, with which he beat other characters, and that's where we get our term "slapstick." His distinctive diamond costume was a stylized representation of ragged, patchwork clothing, as he was a pauper.
So why is a romance publisher named after that? It would make sense if Harlequin was a romantic hero, but a jester? Well, Harlequin's website has no company history at all. Very disappointing. But Mills & Boon, the UK arm of Harlequin came through with a history. And I found more history here. Apparently Harlequin was founded by Richard Bonnycastle (great name!) in 1949. At first they didn't even publish romances--they did paperback reprints of mysteries and westerns. They started doing romance in the mid-1950s.
Okay, so all that is quite interesting, but I couldn't find any information on why the company was named Harlequin. I guess Mr. Bonnycastle equated Harlequin, the funniest character from a form of popular theater, with reasonably priced (cheap) paperback fiction. Sort of high-brow, but not stuffy. Popular entertainment, but classy. If there's another connection, I'm not seeing it.
I don't think Harlequin actually uses the figure as a logo anymore, do they? Just the diamond from his costume. And that's my history lesson for today. :o)