Sweetheart Candy ~ How they came to be.
Conversation hearts, Necco hearts, candy hearts, Sweethearts — there are many names applied to these tiny heart-shaped chunks of candy stamped with short love-themed messages. Not everyone is a fan, Sweethearts ranked up there with Candy Corn and marshmallow Peeps for heated debates between the lovers and haters. Yet no matter where one falls on the tastiness question, and no matter the name preferred, these adorable candies are iconic and synonymous with Valentine’s Day.
But where did they come from? Inquiring minds want to know!
The tale begins with Boston pharmacist Oliver Chase and medicinal lozenges. Newly immigrated to the United States from England, Chase made apothecary lozenges in the method all pharmacists did — that is pulverizing the ingredients with a mortar and pestle, kneading and rolling ropes of sugar-and-gum dough mixed with the medicine, and lastly cutting them into thin tablets. It was a slow, painstaking procedure but not a huge problem, until the processing of sugar made it cheaper and plentiful. Adding sugar to ofttimes bitter medicines created tastier lozenges, which in turn led to heightened demand. In no time at all, lozenges were a hot commodity as a remedy for sore throats and coughs, obviously, but also as candy treats.
Seeking a way to speed the process, in 1847 Oliver designed a lozenge-cutting machine. Resembling a hand-cranked pasta maker (see drawing below), his invention stamped sheets of sugar dough into identically sized circular lozenges that tumbled out all at once. Immediately recognizing the potential, Chase shifted his focus from medicinal lozenges to straight candy.
Chase and his brother Daniel created Chase Candy Company with a factory in South Boston producing “Chase lozenges.” The business would much later be renamed New England Confectionary Company, or NECCO, and thus the candies eventually became known as “Necco wafers.”
In 1866, Daniel Chase came up with a way to press words onto the candy discs using a felt roller pad that was moistened with red food coloring. To this day, no one knows for sure why he chose words of love to write on the candies. One legend claims that the idea came from romantic letters that were sent to soldiers during the Civil War. Necco wafers (called Hub wafers at the time) were popular, easy for soldiers to carry, and had an extraordinarily long shelf life. Combining romantic sentiments with the candy seems a logical sales tactic. Another theory is that Daniel was inspired by Valentine’s Day and the sending of cards, which became a huge fad beginning in the mid-1800s.
The most likely theory is that Daniel drew his inspiration for “conversation candies” from cockles, another popular candy shaped like a scallop shell that contained a “motto” printed on thin paper tucked inside the candy, fortune cookie style. Since the original wafer candies were larger, they featured longer phrases often printed inside a red heart, such as:
- “How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate”
- “Married in pink, he will take a drink”
- “Married in White, you have chosen right”
- “Married in Satin, Love will not be lasting”
The Chase Candy Company made assorted candies in a variety of fun shapes during the latter decades of the 1800s, but the thin wafers were the top sellers. In 1901, Chase Candy Company merged with two other Boston area candy companies to form Necco. Oliver Chase had retired in 1888, but prior to his death in 1902 he saw the creation of the heart-shaped Sweethearts, another idea of brother Daniel Chase.
Thicker and much smaller, the love messages on Sweethearts were shortened to the familiar “BE MINE” and “KISS ME” phrases still seen today. Throughout the 1900s, the candies steadily grew in popularity and remained largely unchanged. The messages, shape, colors, and flavors (White – Wintergreen; Purple – Grape; Orange – Orange; Green – Lime; Yellow – Banana; Pink – Cherry) were consistent, as was the recipe.
In the early 1990s, Necco began to update the messages on Sweethearts, retiring some while adding others. The first new phrase, “FAX ME” was followed by “CALL ME” and “TEXT ME,” among others. Additionally, new flavors were added, a sugar-free option arrived, and the recipe was altered to make a softer, sweeter, less chalky candy in brighter colors.
Fast forward to 2018, Necco tragically went out of business, ending what was the longest running candy company in the United States. Thankfully, Spangler Candy Company (part of America’s candy culture and heritage for 114 years) bought the company and the control over Necco wafers and Sweethearts, as well as the other Necco brand candies such as the Clark Bar, Thin Mints, and Sky Bar. However, due to the delay in production, the Valentine season of 2019 was the first in over a hundred years without any Sweethearts available. By 2020, business was at full capacity, the company producing 8 billion hearts per year!
Next to chocolates, Sweethearts retain their position as the best selling, most beloved Valentine’s Day candy treats.