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XOXO, The pastel Valentine’s Day candies.
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It’s the thought that counts
Conversation hearts are not delicious. Their draw has far more to do with their saccharine messages, like KISS ME, BE MINE, and BFF, than their chalky texture and bland flavor.
In the US, the Sweethearts brand is really the sickly pink standard against which all other conversation hearts are measured. Or it was, until 2019. Necco, the long-time producer of Sweethearts, was the oldest continually operating candy company in the US until it abruptly closed in the summer of 2018. Spangler Candy Company then bought the Necco brand, but was unable to produce Sweethearts in time for Valentine’s Day in 2019. In 2020, they were back, but in limited quantities and many hit store shelves without any sayings at all, the result of faulty printing equipment.
Once a sweet novelty and innovative treat, the appeal of conversation hearts is based far more in sentimental appreciation than actual pleasure today. Will absence make the heart grow fonder?
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By the digits
1.6 million: Individual hearts in a single production run
30 minutes: Time the candy hearts spend in a drying tunnel before being packaged
10,000: Public submissions for new mottos in 2010
40%: Share of the Valentine candy market conversation hearts represent
80%: Share of conversation hearts market that Necco manufactured before going bankrupt
5 years: Time candy hearts stay fresh
$4: Price of a 26-pack box of black market Sweethearts in 2019
8 billion: Conversation hearts sold in the six weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day
9 billion: Kernels of candy corn produced every year
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In the 1840s, lozenges were a popular way for pharmacies to package medicine, but they were time-consuming to make and had to be formed by hand. In 1847, Oliver Chase, a druggist in Boston, invented an automated lozenge maker that produced them in batches. Before long he became a confectioner, founding Chase and Company with his brothers Daniel and Silas. The company later merged with several other candy companies to form New England Candy Company, or Necco.
Cockles, scallop-shell-shaped wafers that came with a message inside, like a fortune cookie, were one of the most popular candies of the era. In 1867, Daniel figured out a way to improve on the cockle and print messages directly onto candy.
They weren’t originally shaped like hearts—they started as discs and branched into shells, baseballs, and horseshoes. By the early 1900s though, the hearts were standard and had become a popular novelty.
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“You will know a true Necco Sweetheart as soon as you try it, because it tastes the way you imagine candy used to taste before companies got good at making candy.”
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Explain it like I’m 5!
The original wafers were much larger than the candies we have today, featuring phrases like “Married in white you have chosen right” and “How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate.”
As the candies got smaller, the phrases shortened to bon mots like MISS YOU, KISS ME, and SWEET TALK. In addition to brevity, Necco’s hearts cannot be “offensive, distasteful, or too wordy,” according to retired Necco vice president Walter Marshall. The possibility of printing mistakes must be considered in advance. “Our Ps sometimes look like Fs, so we can’t say anything like ‘Pucker Up’ for reasons you understand,” Hugh B. Albert, production manager at Necco, told the Atlantic.
The messages have always reflected the moment. Retired mottos include GROOVY, FAX ME, and 1-800-CUPID. In 2010 Necco asked the public to submit ideas resulting in hearts that read TWEET ME, TEXT, and LOVE BUG. Recent additions have included GIRL POWER and RECIPE 4 LOVE.
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1847: Oliver Chase creates an automatic lozenge cutter machine. He soon abandons the lozenge business to focus on making candy wafers at what would become the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO).
1866: Daniel Chase, Oliver’s brother, figures out a way to print words on the wafer candies with vegetable dye.
1901: Conversation candies are cut into heart shapes and branded as Sweethearts.
1927: Necco becomes the largest candymaker in the US.
1990: Necco acquires Stark Candy Company, becoming the leading manufacturer of conversation hearts.
2006: Twilight-inspired messages appear on the candy, including BITE ME and DAZZLE.
2010: New Sweetheart flavors, like strawberry and blue raspberry, replace old favorites like banana.
2018: Necco shuts down and is bought by Spangler Candy Company.
2019: Sweethearts are not widely available in stores during the Valentine’s season.
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Million-dollar question: Why is seasonal candy so divisive?
Conversation hearts belong to a special category shared with candy corn and marshmallow Peeps. They’re seasonal candies that don’t have much flavor other than sweetness, and suffer from serious textural challenges. Most importantly, we love to fight about them.
candy corn is almost as bad as those little conversation hearts for valentine’s day
— ryan (@ryanyeetz) October 5, 2017
In advertising, a “scarcity appeal” makes a product seem more valuable by using language like “limited time only” and “two per customer.” Holiday candies that only hit the shelf for a few weeks a year made them more appealing by that artificial scarcity—there’s nothing stopping confectioners from selling candy canes year-round. Add that to the strong emotional responses we have to the holidays and you have the perfect recipe for strong opinions.
There are two types of people. Those who eat candy conversation hearts and those who aren’t disgusting.
— Nayele18 (@nayele18maybe) February 13, 2018
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If you can’t find any in stores, or just want truly personalized conversation hearts, The Spruce Eats has a recipe. It doesn’t require many ingredients, but it does take a long time. Martha Stewart went to Necco to see how they automated the process. And, you can make your own digital version with custom messages here.