Laura Dean Bennett
Whether you prefer a time tested message like “Be Mine,” or you are a young person who leans more toward a modern sentiment like, “Tweet Me,” it’s good to know that Sweetheart Valentine candy is still around for our Valentine’s Day celebrations.
The little pastel hearts bearing sweet messages have been showing up in candy dishes, on cakes and in treat bags since way, way before any of us were born.
In fact, they have a much more venerable history than you could’ve ever imagined.
The little pastel Valentine heart candy is made by the New England Confectionary Company- NECCO.
And NECCO is the country’s oldest continually operating candy company – making candy for 171 years now.
Today’s conversation hearts are exactly the same as they were in 1902, and the company has sold hundreds of billions of them.
In the early 1990s, in fact, the company estimated that it was annually churning out a whopping eight billion hearts – including larger “motto hearts” – accounting for roughly one-quarter of its total sales.
But the little message candies have been around a lot longer than that, having evolved into their current form from the original message candies which were being enjoyed as far back as when Abraham Lincoln was president.
Massachusetts could once lay claim to being the candy capital of America.
At one time, Boston and Cambridge were home to 140 candy companies, with Main Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, being known as “Confectioner’s Row.”
Oliver B. Chase, with help from his brother, David, founded the New England Confectionery Co. in 1847.
The brothers had immigrated from England to Massachusetts, where, among his other pursuits, Oliver invented a lozenge-cutting machine.
His invention became the first American candy manufacturing machine.
The brothers used the machine to cut thin wafers of crunchy candy made from a simple recipe of sugar, gelatin, and flavorings, and they used it to set up their small factory in South Boston.
Before long, they were manufacturing “Chase Loz-enges,” which were the forerunner to their renowned NECCO Wafers.
They were about the size of a quarter and came in rolls, wrapped in what resembled stiff wax paper.
The wafers, the first candies ever to be sold in multi-piece rolls, became quite popular.
Not only were they tasty, but they were durable and had a long shelf life, giving them an advantage over most other commercial sweet treats of the period.
Even in warm weather, the wafers could be transported over long distances without affecting their flavor or texture.
The New England Confectionary Company was now a famous candy-maker, known throughout the country.
In 1913, NECCO Wafers went with explorer Donald MacMillan to the Arctic and Antarctica. He took them along for easily portable nutrition and as gifts to the Eskimo children.
Admiral Richard Byrd took two and a half tons of NECCO Wafers on his expedition to the South Pole in the 1930s.
NECCO Wafers have continued to be the company’s classic centerpiece, but, every year, come January, NECCO begins production of one of the nation’s favorite Valentine’s Day candy – their little “Sweethearts.”
Among the many successful products that NECCO developed in the 20th century, and there are many, the “conversation candies,” a concept that David Chase invented in the 1860s, is still one of their best sellers.
The conversation candies originated in 1863, when the New England Confectionery Company began making little sugar and flour pressed candies called cockles.
They were called cockles because they were shaped like a scallop shell.
The brothers were inspired to put a hand-printed “love note” inside each candy.
The notes were printed on thin, colored paper, rolled up and folded into each shell, kind of like a fortune cookie.
The cockles bore messages about romance and became quite the hit at weddings.
They were considerably larger than today’s tiny hearts and could accommodate a fairly elaborate commentary about personal relationships.
Messages like “Married in white, you have chosen right,” “Married in pink, he’ll take to drink,” “Married in satin, love will not be lastin’” must have seemed like cutting edge advice in the Victorian era.
A candy technology upgrade occurred 14 years later when Daniel Chase designed a machine that could stamp words directly onto their wafers with red vegetable dye.
Reasoning it could also work with the romantic message candy, too, the candies were changed to little pastel hearts and their messages were printed on the surface.
Many of the most popular messages, for instance, “Be True,” “Marry Me,” “Kiss Me,” “Be Mine” and “I’m Yours,” have been around since Chase printed his first batch in 1902.
But the valentine hearts have always tried to stay current with the times.
In some ways, Sweethearts are like little time capsules, memorializing the trendy lingo of days gone by, like “Dig me” and “Hep Cat.”
In the early 1990s, NECCO was printing 32 different heart messages, many of which had been around since the turn of the century.
They decided it was time to update the “sweet nothings” with some more modern sentiments, including messages like “Fax Me” and “Email Me.”
In 2009, the company even produced “Bite Me” and “Live 4 Ever” to tie into the Twilight phenomenon.
In 2010, the company discarded a lot of their old messages, save for the really popular classics, to make room for consumer-driven ideas.
Each year, they create a new line with expressions selected by the public.
These days, some of the most popular messages are “Tweet Me,” “Text Me,” “You Rock,” “Love Bug,” “Soul Mate,” “Chill Out,” and “Me + You.”
The new and improved hearts don’t taste exactly the way they used to since NECCO reformulated the original recipe.
In addition to updating the texture to be more candy-like, there are new flavors like green apple and blue raspberry.
And even the colors are bolder.
The little conversation hearts are used as cake decorations and children’s’ Valentine party favors, as part of lots of creative crafts, as cute Valentine’s Day gifts, and they even play a part in lots of marriage proposals.
Every year, for six weeks, from late January through mid-February, more than eight billion of the sweet little hearts – at least 100,000 pounds a day – issue forth from their Revere, Massachuetts, home.
And every year, they sell out.
And, for you romantics who have something very particular to say, you can have a custom batch of hearts made – if you can afford it.
You’ll have to buy a full production run – which consists of 1.7 million candy hearts.
Who says you can’t buy love?