Updated: Mar 6
The History Involved A Pharmacy and
America’s First Candy Machine.
Conversation hearts, Necco hearts, candy hearts, Or Sweethearts, people use many different names to describe those tiny heart-shaped chunks of candy sporting short messages that are ubiquitous around Valentine’s Day.
The candy is iconic, and pretty much synonymous with the most romantic day of the year. But when it comes to actually eating real conversation hearts… well, let’s just say
it’s a divisive topic.
But what are they even made of? And where did they come from? In honor of Valentine’s Day, we took a look at the history and process behind conversation hearts.
The history of the hearts
The story of conversation hearts begins in 1847, when a Boston pharmacist named Oliver Chase invented a machine that would make it easier to produce lozenges.
At the time, apothecary lozenges (basically medicine mixed with sugar paste) were in high demand as a popular remedy for sore throats and other ailments. But making them was a labor-intensive process that involved pulverization with a mortar and pestle, kneading dough, rolling it out and cutting it into small discs. Oliver simplified the process with his lozenge cutter, often considered America’s first candy-making machine.
The pharmacist then shifted his focus from medicinal lozenges to candy and founded Chase and Company, which later became the New England Confectionery Company or Necco. The candy lozenges became what we know today as Necco Wafers. In 1866, Daniel Chase, brother of Oliver, devised a way to press words onto the candy lozenges, using a felt roller pad moistened with vegetable coloring (usually red).
There are a few different theories about the inspiration behind these specially printed lozenges. One unverified legend claims that Union soldiers in the Civil War carried around Necco Wafers, then known as “hub wafers,” and the practice of sending romantic letters to soldiers sparked the idea for conversation hearts.
Others suggest that Daniel was inspired by the growing popularity of Valentine’s Day cards, which Massachusetts resident Esther Howland started selling in the mid-1800s. What seems like a more likely explanation is that Daniel drew his inspiration from cockles, a popular candy shaped like a scallop shell that contained a “motto” printed on thin, rolled-up paper. He decided to devise a way to print the messages directly onto candy.
UR SWEET: What they’re made of
Necco offers classic Sweethearts, as well as sugar-free, chocolate, “color your own” and “dazzled” varieties. The company website describes how the classic candy hearts are made.
Daniel’s “conversation candies” or “motto lozenges” were not heart-shaped until 1902. Around that time, the candy, previously sold as simple discs, also started appearing in fun shapes like baseballs, horseshoes, and watches.
Conversation hearts were a big success, and over the next century, other small candy companies started offering similar products. With the acquisition of Stark Candy Company in 1990, Necco says it became “the leading manufacturer of conversation hearts.”
Today, the company claims to produce about 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts every day from mid-February through January. It produces approximately 8 billion candy hearts each year.
Manufacturers combine sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, flavors, gums, and colors into a mixing machine to create a dough, which then goes into a machine that presses it flat, stamps it with sayings and cut it into hearts. After 30 minutes in a “drying tunnel,” the six different heart flavors are mixed together and packaged.
According to the ingredient list on the box, Sweethearts contain sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, glycerine, artificial and natural flavors, gelatin, vegetable gums (tragacanth, xanthan, and Arabic), citric acid, and artificial colors (red 3, yellow 5, yellow 6, red 40, blue 1). So, no, they’re not made of chalk.
TEXT ME: The sayings
Today’s sayings are on average much shorter than the original ones. Some of the original sayings are still in rotation including “Be Mine,” “Be Good,” “Be True,” and “Kiss Me.” In the early 1990s, Sweethearts began an initiative to update the sayings each year, retiring some while adding others. The first new phrase, “Fax Me,” gained a lot of attention from Sweetheart fans. Following this notable effort, each year Sweethearts receives hundreds of suggestions from romantics, candy lovers, and school kids. From old tech, “Call Me” to new tech, “Text Me,” Sweethearts phrases have reflected eras throughout history.
While most people love to eat them, Sweethearts have also been used in other ingenious ways over the years: to propose marriage, to teach children reading, to decorate cakes and to use as borders for picture frames. The uses for Sweethearts are seemingly endless!