The History of Sweethearts

Nothing says Valentine’s Day quite like conversation hearts, and they’ve been quite the topic of their own conversation in recent days following Necco’s bankruptcy and the announcement that their popular candy would not be sold. This news came as a disappointment to many, especially considering that they’ve been in production since before the Civil War. The little chalky tooth-chippers have existed as they are for over one hundred years, before anyone had figured out that candy is supposed to taste good.

The New England Confectionery Company, abbreviated as Necco, started producing what would become the iconic Sweethearts following Bostonian Oliver R. Chase’s 1847 invention of a machine meant to cut lozenge shapes from wafer candies, and subsequently founded his own factory to sell the candy. In 1866, Oliver’s brother Daniel, added a function to the machine capable of printing phrases onto the wafers, which became a popular treat at weddings. Early sayings, predecessors to classics like “Be Mine,” included “Married in White, you have chosen right,” and “Married in Satin, Love will not be lasting.”

It wasn’t until 1901, however, that the candies became what they are today, adopting their heart shape. A few of the original 1901 phrases have stood the test of time, too--“Kiss Me” is just as popular now as it was then.

Phrases have come and gone over the last hundred years, often reflecting the times, and then thrown out again when the times change. What was once “Fax Me” has been replaced with “Tweet Me,” which will surely be ousted in time.

In 2010, in an attempt to appeal to young consumers with a preference for bolder flavors, Necco changed their classic Sweetheart recipe, with flavors like banana and cherry nixed in favor of blue raspberry, green apple, and “spring fresh”--whatever that is. Many baby boomers, however, remained die-hard fans of the old flavors, and expressed outrage over the change in recipe, claiming that the new flavors tasted “toxic.” Following the volatile response, Necco CEO Jeff Green announced that they would be toning down the new flavors to appease their older fans.

The same year would mark Sweetheart’s first offer for submissions from the public for new sayings, with “Text Me” and “Love Bug” being popular results.

Conversation hearts account for 40% of all Valentine’s candy sales, coming in with a close second to chocolate. While Sweethearts are produced year round, Necco makes eight billion of the famous candies in just the six weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day.

Necco filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and was quickly bought up by Round Hill Investments--the same company that bought Hostess when they went bankrupt a few years ago. Round Hill then immediately resold Necco to a nameless, mystery company, which then also resold Necco, this time to Spangler Candy Company, known for their Dum Dum lollipops.

However, the bankruptcy and various sales and resales have led to production problems, and as a result Necco’s Sweethearts won’t be available on shelves for the 2019 Valentine’s season.

If you’re really desperate for some of that dusty goodness, you’ve still got some options. Brach’s, producer of the equally old and gross candy corn, makes their own knockoff conversation hearts, as does Sour Patch Kids. Oreos will be making a limited run of their sandwich cookies with Sweetheart-esque phrases printed on them instead of the Oreo logo, and Krispy Kreme will be baking some Sweetheart donuts. You can also find last year’s Sweethearts on Amazon, because surely stale Sweethearts can’t taste any worse than regular Sweethearts. Or, if you’re really desperate, you can always just dip a stick of chalk in some powdered sugar.

The Valentine’s icons will be back on shelves in 2020, but regardless of taste, it’s safe to say that this year’s Valentine’s Day just won’t be the same with the absence of everyone’s favorite gross commercial candy.