by Diana Bulls
February is the month of romance, and February 14 is considered by almost everyone, to be the most romantic day of the year. In modern times (around the end of the 18th century) Victorian lovers exchanged notes or cards, but pretty soon those cards were being accompanied by a gift like candy or flowers. And in 1847, a clever young man invented a lozenge cutter that turned out to be America’s first candy machine, and in so doing started the commercial candy industry in the United States.
So what does that invention have to do with Valentine’s Day, you ask? In 1902, another enterprising man–in fact, it was the earlier inventor’s brother–came up with the idea for “conversation candies” and the rest is…history. What would Valentine’s Day be without those iconic little pastel hearts? When I was a kid, they said things like “Cutie”, “Be Mine”, or “Dare Me”. Now days, they are more likely to say “Tweet Me” or “You Rock”. Whatever the message, conversation candies are just as popular now as they were back in the late 1800s.
Sweethearts® as they are now called, are produced by the New England Confectionery Company, otherwise known as NECCO®. According to the company website, about 100,000 pounds of candy hearts are produced every day from mid-February through the following January. We are talking billions and billions of candy hearts! NECCO® says that there is “more than enough for everyone in the world to have one”, but they sell out in about six weeks.
These conversation candies didn’t start out looking like hearts. No, 149 years ago—all the way back to when Abraham Lincoln was president–they were shaped like a seashell called a “cockle”. The motto was printed on slip of colored paper, rolled up, and baked inside the shell. The candies were especially popular for weddings, with the printed mottos reading “Married in pink, He will take to drink” or “Married in white, you have chosen right”.
Factory made heart-shaped conversation candies were introduced in 1902 when a machine was invented that would press letters on the candy. The hearts were marketed under the Sweethearts brand, with messages like “Kiss Me”, “Sweet Talk”, or “I’m Yours”. These particular messages can still be found on today’s candies.
In the 1990s NECCO began to modernize their famous “sweet nothings”. Instead of “Call Me” heart readers were asked to “Fax Me” or “Email Me”. In 2009, “Bite Me” and “Live 4 Ever” paid tribute to certain vampires. And then with the arrival of social media “Text Me” or “Tweet Me” came along. According to retired NECCO vice president Walter Marshall, there are some basic rules as for what makes an ideal conversation heart saying. The sayings can’t be “offensive, distasteful, or too wordy”. Space is limited, with generally only room for two or three words or about 12 letters total. The company receives hundreds of suggestions for new messages every year.
The candies are made from sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, gums, coloring and flavoring but in 2010, the original recipe was changed. The candy is now softer, the colors more vivid and the flavors include green apple and raspberry. Besides looking different from the candy you might remember, the “new” candy doesn’t leave the same dusty chalk on your hands.
In a recent Time Magazine interview, NECCO execs explained how the conversation hearts are made. The ingredients are mixed into a dough that is stretched and rolled by machine. The messages are printed in red ink with an old-fashioned print press. After the letters are printed, the dough is cut into heart shapes. It takes two to three days for the hearts to dry. After drying they are placed into a machine called “the rocket launcher” that mixes them all up so that one box doesn’t have all one color or message.
Believe it or not, but there is actually a collector’s group for Sweethearts. Well, it’s a group of people who collect all kinds of candy packaging, along with the “history, marketing and people behind it all”. Their web site says it is “a pop-culture celebration of confection”. Check it out at www.collectingcandy.com/wordpress.
Here are some fun facts about conversation hearts:
• NECCO makes more than 8 billion candy hearts every year to keep up with the demand for the sweet treat.
• Every day from late February through mid-January, around 100,000 pounds of conversation candy hearts are made.
• The entire amount produced during this time sells out in six weeks. Candy hearts are the best-selling Valentine’s Day candy.
• In 2010, for the first time in 145 years, the company discarded all of the sayings for the conversation hearts and created a new line with expressions selected by the public.
• The most popular new sayings for conversation candy hearts are “Tweet Me”, “Text Me”, “You Rock”, “Love Bug”, “Soul Mate” and “Me + You”.
• In order to get the old sayings, you can have them custom made—but you’ll have to buy a full production run (1.7 million candy hearts!).
Without a doubt, Valentine’s Day would never be the same without NECCO’s little hearts and their sweet little messages. I read something, somewhere that said “each candy is like a miniature Valentine’s Day card”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
May your Valentine’s Day conversations “Be Good”.
A Sweet Valentine’s Day Gift made with candy conversation hearts
You will need:
1 photo frame
white craft glue (or a glue gun)
a bag of candy conversation hearts
1. Measure a cardboard circle to fit on top of a picture frame. Cut out the middle of the circle so the photo will show.
2. Glue the candy hearts on the cardboard head-to-head.
3. Glue another heart layer on top. You can alternate colors on this layer or glue the hearts with the sayings face up.
4. Spray the finished cardboard circle with clear sealer.
5. Glue the finished circle on the photo frame.
Check out more of Diana’s home collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.