Hey, Sweetheart: About Those Conversation Hearts

Call Me. Be Mine. True Love. Kiss Me.

Don’t get any ideas, I’m not flirting with you. These are just common sayings found on everybody’s favorite valentine candy. Except… well, they’re not quite everyone’s favorite, but they are one of my favorites. Sure, it’s unclear what they’re really made of, and I get massive heartburn when I eat them, but that doesn’t always stop me when it comes to certain things. Things like Valentine Conversation Hearts. Although plenty of people hate them, I definitely fall in camp L-O-V-E when it comes to those chalky little hearts.

Back when I was single, they always boosted my spirits around Valentine’s Day. Not only because they are delicious, but also because they are perfect little projectiles to whip at those oh-so-happy couples (I NEVER did that…). They come with a real sense of nostalgia too, because they’ve been around forever. I really do mean forever. These hearts actually originated in the oldest candy company in America. So old that I can finally talk about the Civil War during one of these confectionary posts.

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Let’s wind the clocks back to the mid-1800s, and to a candy maker named Oliver Chase. He actually started in pharmaceuticals. In 1847, he invented a machine that lent more speed and convenience to pumping out lozenges. A timely invention, because apothecary lozenges (consisting mostly of herbs and sugar) were all the rage at the time, like the CBD Oil of today. People used them for a plethora of minor ailments like sore throats, sniffles, and bad breath.

Before Chase and his wonder machine entered the picture, making lozenges was a pain that no lozenge could cure. Workers had to crush the herbs by hand and mix them with a mortar and pestle. Then they added the dough, punching and kneading everything out by hand. They had to cut and shape each little individual disc one at a time. It wasn’t the fastest way to meet the crushing demand for herbal remedies. So, Oliver Chase stepped in with his hand-crank machine he dubbed “the Lozenge Cutter.” It fit nicely on a tabletop, and it cranked out all those discs, perfectly shaped, in a matter of minutes.

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I’m not sure what made Chase switch from herbal remedies to candy. Maybe because candy feels medicinal enough. Or maybe since most herbal lozenges were half-sugar anyway, Chase decided to stop kidding himself. Either way, he eventually founded Chase & Company, which he later re-named to the New England Confectionary Company. Notice anything about those letters? No? Look again… when you squeeze it all together a little bit, you get… NECCO.

Yes, that’s right. Oliver Chase invented those delightful little candy discs that have graced candy stores for over a century. The flat little sugar circles became known as Necco Wafers, and when they first appeared on the shelves, they were a huge hit. Union soldiers in the Civil War had a special fondness for them. The boys in blue referred to them as “hub wafers.” They were conveniently sized, they transported well, and they kept in extreme weather conditions. So, many a soldier’s pack contained a roll of the sugary wafers to put a little pep into his marching step.

Just after the Civil War, in 1866, Oliver Chase’s brother Daniel added his own flourish to the already-popular Necco Wafers. He pressed words into the discs, so people could give their friends and loved ones a delightful and sweet greeting card. He accomplished this with a felt roller pad stamped in vegetable coloring, which gave the letters a reddish hue.

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It’s a little hazy where Daniel got this idea. A few theories popped up here and there, including a romantic notion that Civil War sweethearts used the candy to send love mementos to their soldiers. However, most candy buffs believe that Oliver Chase and his brother took a cue from another candy known as Cockles – a shell-shaped candy with messages tucked inside on thin, rolled up paper.

With Daniel Chase’s vegetable-soaked felt pads, he eliminated the paper middle man. He branded his invention Daniel’s Conversation Candies, or “Motto Lozenges.” The little talking wafers became an absolute smash, especially amongst courting couples and brides and grooms.

By 1902, the lozenges had morphed into other shapes. Horseshoes and baseballs thrilled the kids, but the hearts really captured people’s…. souls (you thought I was going to say heart didn’t you). The short but very sweet messages of “Hug Me,” “Be True,” and “Marry Me” (bold for a little piece of candy) absolutely charmed all the candy lovers. The heart shapes also made them perfect for Valentine’s Day. The hearts entwined so deeply with Valentine’s Day that Necco re-branded them as “Sweethearts,” and endless pink boxes of them appeared in the markets every February.

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For a large part of American history, even well into the 20th century, Necco led the way in satiating the sweet tooth and sending love messages at Valentine’s Day. And their cheap cost kept them affordable even during the Great Depression. Historical rumor says Admiral Richard Byrd included two tons of Necco wafers in the supplies for his trip to the South Pole. Necco Wafers also remained a favorite amongst fighting men. World War II GIs devoured them, since Uncle Sam found them so easy to ship.

Things took a bad turn for Necco in the 2000s. The rise in confectionary competition turned people’s attention elsewhere. They weren’t as sweet on Necco anymore, but they didn’t have the heart to toss them aside completely (Valentine puns). Maybe it just felt comforting to see them on the store shelves, since they had been around so long.

Even so, Necco spent most of the early 2000s scrambling to keep up with a changing market. They consolidated all their facilities and switched up their board. They tried to resurrect interest with new flavors and themes (have you tried the tropical wafers? Seriously – delicious). Then came the layoffs.

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It wasn’t quite enough. In 2018, the company’s chief executive, Michael McGee, made an announcement that broke all of our little sweethearts. Unless a buyer could be found, Necco, the oldest candy company in the United States, would have to shut its doors. To ensure us the threat was real, they filed for bankruptcy and sold their remaining assets at auction.

People who once shunned Necco wafers and Valentine Sweethearts went into crisis mode. Online sales of both of them skyrocketed, as did the prices. Amazon and Ebay sellers made a killing selling five or six rolls of a candy once cheaper than dust. One frantic internet user offered to sell his car in exchange for a box of those nostalgic little sugar circles. I myself went to the store and loaded up. I mean… LOADED. UP.

If McGee wanted to get people’s attention, he certainly succeeded. Necco spent the next few months passing around the buyer’s market like a roll of candy wafers. In the end, Spangler Candy Company won the prize, and they promised to continue making the Necco Wafers and Sweethearts under the familiar Necco banner. However, as of this writing, production of the famous wafers remains on hiatus. A quick glimpse at Amazon has buyers asking hundreds of dollars for a few pitiful rolls. Even the supply in vintage candy shops has long since run dry. As for my own stockpile, I’m afraid I cleaned it out months ago.

Meanwhile, the candy world has tried to make nice by providing talking hearts in other guises. Sweet Tarts has their own tangy and crunchy form of Valentine hearts. Candy maker Brachs (who makes another holiday favorite of mine – click here) packs the Valentine shelves with their own chalky candy heart, but they don’t quite taste the same. At least they say very nice things to me before I swallow them up. And the messages have been updated for the modern era – Text Me. Call Me. Tweet Me. Smile.

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And This. Anyone care to explain this one to me???

As for the smile, I’ll sure try – but you know, it’s tough this time of year. Brachs gets the job done, but I miss my little Necco Sweethearts. There’s a wafer shaped hole inside me. Necco had been around my whole life. For a lot longer than that, actually. I thought I was the only one who cared about them, but the online scramble at the last minute taught me a lesson. Whether you love them or hate them, it’s sad when a piece of American nostalgia slips away – when something we thought we would always have disappears. Because that’s the thing about Necco Wafers. It’s about more than the candy.

Whenever I saw Necco wafers in my local convenience store, often with faded colors and collections of dust, I always smiled. They felt like packaged memories. My grandpa always bought me Necco Wafers when I was a kid. I snuck them in my backpack everywhere. I could always afford them, even when I was little. Hold a Necco Wafer in your hand, and it’s like shaking hands with the past. You can share in something that people over many decades have enjoyed. Something that even made battered Civil War soldiers smile.

Will Necco Wafers and Sweethearts return? Spangler Candy Company swears they will. They don’t even plan on altering the original recipe. However, the wafers have yet to make an appearance on any of the shelves. All we can do is wait, I guess. That, and whip Brach’s candy hearts at those oh-so-happy couples…

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SOURCES

“Chalk Full of Love: The Evolution of Conversation Hearts” – National Geographic

“The History of Conversation Hearts” – Huffington Post

The Spangler Candy Company

Wikipedia

All Photos by M.B. Henry – And these are Brachs Conversation hearts. Not Necco. But they should be Necco. Bring back the Necco. 

UPDATE!!! – In summer of 2020, Necco Wafers made their triumphant return, and that fall, they promptly wound up on a “worst candies of Halloween” list. I strongly disagree, and very happily celebrated by buying a bulk package of Necco rolls. 

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A Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone out there! Hope it’s filled with love and chalky hearts! 

100 Comments on “Hey, Sweetheart: About Those Conversation Hearts

  1. Great job, MB, relating some nostalgic candy history. I hope the two products you discussed return. For one thing, they’re WAY too expensive on Amazon and eBay, as you note.

    • Oh goodness are they ever. It’s heart-breaking!! Want my Necco wafers back dang it! 🙂 Glad you liked the post Dave.

    • Nope! 🙂 They’ve always used the same recipe even after all those years. The new company swears they don’t plan on altering that and I hope that holds true.

  2. I’ve never had a Necco Wafer. I don’t recall ever even seeing them in my neck of the woods in Canada. We did have the Sweethearts, though.

  3. Sacreligious, I know, but I found them a bit too chalky for my taste, although I did like the brown Necco wafers (rootbeer??) and would trade with my sister for them.
    FYI: BAE bae
    [bā]
    NOUN
    US
    informal
    a person’s boyfriend or girlfriend (often as a form of address).
    “I’m going to see my bae”

    • Yes – there were definitely root beer ones. Those were one of my favorites as well. And no need to worry, that chalky goodness isn’t for everybody 🙂 And thanks for the explanation about BAE. I am definitely not up to speed on the modern-day slang hahaha.

    • Hopefully the wafers do come back! I’m keeping my eyes and ears peeled 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. I am glad to have some company to join me pining for discontued candy. Except my beloved Brachs French Burnrt Peanuts don’t seem to create the same market panic by their absence as do the Necco hearts. Except in me, of course.

    I loved the wafers more than the hearts – the chocolate wafers were the best!! My father used to buy them, and his father probably did before him. When they come back I will be sure to buy a couple of rolls.

    • Oh man the chocolate ones were so good! And I agree the wafers were just a tad better than the hearts – but I feel a very deep void for them both. Here’s hoping they make a speedy return under their new owner.
      I hadn’t even realized the burnt peanuts disappeared! Man, all the old nostalgia candies falling one by one 🙁

  5. Doubt we ever had the original sweethearts in oz, never heard of the wafers … but I had my share of very chalky sweethearts with such messages when I was at school, which was quite a while ago and I’ve not seen them since!

    Interesting bit of history .. that’s happened here to our biscuits, tinned fruit and too many other locally produced and packaged treats that we sell off and never get the same quality!

    • 🙁 It’s sad when they keep taking our favorite treats away. How else can we cope with these troubled times?! Did I hear that there’s been some fire relief over there after the rains? I’ve been thinking of you guys a lot!

      • yes all major fires in NSW are finally declared under control but it took heaps of rain to get there … now we are flooded!
        Second time I’ve had my travel blocked by flooded roads and Ballina has a massive amount of water in the streets … one extreme to the other in just a few weeks …

      • 🙁 Goodness. I know it’s not easy. We had very similar problems here in California when the fires were really bad a couple years ago. Then when the rains came, so did the mudslides! 🙁

    • Hey, nothing wrong with chocolate at all. I sure consume more than my fair share 🙂 That’s cool about the Love Hearts – they almost look like the old Necco wafers used to. I might have to see if I can try some!

    • So glad you enjoyed it! If they do resurrect the Necco Wafers and hearts, I hope you get a chance to try them 🙂

      • I will try to look for the next time in the USA. I hope to make a new trip later in 2020. The sweets are so beautiful to look at

      • Nice! Hope you have a wonderful time when you come. Let me know what areas you plan on visiting and if I’ve been there, I can give you some tips! (If you’d like).

    • I totally forgot how many people used the wafers to shingle their gingerbread houses. Just another reason why we need our Necco wafers back! 🙁 Hopefully it will be sometime this year (according to Spangler’s website anyway). Finger’s crossed!

  6. An interesting history lesson. Necco wafers are my favorite candy of all time. Give me a roll of all chocolate Neccos and I was in hog heaven.

    • I’m glad to have a powerful ally in the Necco Wafer trenches 🙂 And yes – those chocolate ones were a special kind of delicious.

      • So many good things are disappearing. My granddaughter buys me Necco Wafers for Christmas. I savor them – by rationing them. Ha

      • I tried to ration but that only took me so far! 🙁 I’m really hoping they bring them back soon!

  7. I used to buy Necco wafers in the candy aisle of a little five-and-ten store in my childhood neighborhood. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, both the store and the candy were a throwback.

    • When I was a kid there was an excellent five-and-ten shop in the town where I went to school. The guy who ran it was incredible. Kids used to come in there for candy (including Necco wafers!) and he would overflow a small paper bag with goodies and only charge about fifty cents! So glad the post brought back some memories for you 🙂

  8. My favorite lines: “I NEVER did that” and “They were like the CBD Oil of today.” Haha! Another lovely, fascinating and informative historic piece. Thanks, M.B. (and I love the humor you weave into your posts).

    • “I NEVER did that…” – I of course did that.
      “The CBD Oil of Today…” – I mean, it’s everywhere! (But it really does help with anxiety).
      So glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂 And I firmly believe that we must laugh about it once in awhile – there’s not much else we can do at times

  9. I had a feeling from the beginning of the story that it would lead to Necco. Didn’t realize they’d gone out of business. I really liked the wafers and hearts as a kid. This story reminds me of the Twinkies tale.

    • Ahhh yes the Twinkies crisis. I remember that very well too hahaha. I’m hoping the Necco Wafers will be back real soon, because I sure miss them! Glad you enjoyed the post and hope you are well

    • Thanks much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Yes I wonder if there is a connection there. People do seem to enjoy sweets that say sweet things 🙂

  10. You’re not the only one who stocked up on Necco wafers. Unfortunately, I didn’t create a large enough stash, and they’re all gone now. I liked the licorice as much as the root beer, but they all were pretty good. They were a lovely addition to gingerbread houses at Christmas time, too, working marvelously well for roof shingles, stepping stones in the gardens, and so on. Exchanging the hearts during our grade school Valentine’s Day parties was great fun, and besides — they tasted good.

    • Oh gosh I forgot all about the licorice ones but how could I? They were so fantastic! And yes I also forgot how many people used them to make gingerbread houses, especially the roofs! Hopefully they will be back soon – I’m clinging to the promise of Spangler.

  11. I certainly had hundreds of the chalky Sweethearts during my school years, but the only place I’ve seen legit Necco wafers is at Cracker Barrels, where they sell all the vintage candy like Moon Pies and horehound sticks. They remind me too much of Tum’s, but I will eat them in a pinch if chocolate is not around, which it always is. Certainly makes sense that soldiers would want them since they don’t melt.

    • Would you say you’ve seen the Necco Wafers recently at a Cracker Barrel? Which one? Wait… let me get my car keys. 🙂 You know I could actually see them reminding a person of tums. There are some similarities for sure! Except one causes heartburn while the other cures it hahaha 😉

      • Well, I was thinking about that when I read your post because their quality of offering has taken a large downturn, and hence, we have not visited in over a year. So it’s possible even THEY, the bastion of nostalgia, may lack Neccos. Neccoless Cracker Barrels with empty white rocking chairs across the nation…

      • I must say I used to go to Cracker Barrel all the time when I was a kid. And during our Route 66 trip my husband and I stopped at one for old times sake. It didn’t seem like it was the same! But if there’s the possibility of Necco Wafers at one, I just might go….

  12. Very interesting candy and medicinal history! I think now (with the flu season and Valentine’s Day) is a good time to develop some Valentine throat lozenges..🤔

  13. Great story! It really touched my heart! (It had to be said.) I don’t like the Brachs version nearly as much as NECCO either. Happy Valentines Day!

  14. This is so interesting! I never knew the history behind these little hearts. My mom always gave each of us a box of hearts for Valentine’s Day and I still get them for my daughter. I miss the old recipe though.

    • You and me both! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day

  15. I am so sorry to hear about your wafer-shaped hole inside of you, M.B., and I seriously hope that it will be filled with the real thing really soon.
    Still I hope you will be able to enjoy Valentine’s Day. 😊

  16. Wonderful history, MB. Took me all the way back to the 50s when I always bought a pack of Neccos when I was hating the Saturday afternoon matinee. Thanks for the trip down memory lane! –Curt

    • Sorry the movies were bad but at least the treats were good! 🙂 Glad you liked the post

  17. I loved these tasty treats and was sad to hear they shut the doors. All good things must come to an end – BOO. Awesome write up – will you do one on peeps? I cannot for the life of me, understand anyone’s love for these things!!!

      • I wonder if ours has been updated to “Text Me” etc Now I will be on the hunt for them in random stores around the place. <3

      • Oh yes there’s all kinds of updated sayings now. I’ve seen “Tweet Me,” “Bestie,” and “text me” as well! 🙂

  18. I like what you said about shaking hands with history.

    I didn’t realize these candy hearts had such a long & interesting history. And I also didn’t know there was a panic when they stopped producing them.

    We were always excited to have these candies as kids. We’d compare the sayings and tease each other about who we were going to marry if someone ended up with a “Marry Me” candy. You’ve brought back a lot of great memories. 🙂

    • Yay! I’m happy to hear you enjoyed it and relived some happy memories. How sweet about the “Marry Me” candies 🙂 <3

  19. Made beautiful centerpieces out of them last year for Valentine’s Day! I’m not very fond of their taste though.

    • They do make fabulous decorations! I’m never able to make decorations though, I just end up eating them hahaha. But not everyone cares for the taste, I totally understand 🙂

  20. A totally enjoyable and sweet post about those yummy wafers. We stockpiled a few but like yours, and many others, they’re gone. Thanks for sharing the history behind this favorite candy! I hope it does make a reappearance on store shelves under the new company!

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