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 some of the most 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. Valentine Conversation Hearts fall into that category. Although many wish they didn’t exist, I am definitely in camp L-O-V-E when it comes to those chalky little hearts.
Back when I was single, they were the only thing to boost my spirits around Valentine’s Day. Not only are they delicious, but they are also 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. The company that first cranked out these hearts was the oldest candy company in America. It was so old that I can finally talk about the Civil War during one of these confectionary posts.
So, without further ado, let’s wind the clocks back to the mid-1800s, and to a candy maker named Oliver Chase. He wasn’t always in the candy business, he actually started in pharmaceuticals. In 1847, he invented a machine that lent more speed and convenience to pumping out lozenges. It was a timely invention, because apothecary lozenges (consisting mostly of herbs and sugar) were all the rage at the time. They were 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 of any kind was a real pain that no lozenge could cure. The herbs were all crushed and mixed with a mortar and pestle. Then workers added the dough, and they punched and kneaded everything out by hand. They had to cut and shape each little individual disc one at a time. It wasn’t exactly the best way to meet the crushing demand for herbal remedies. So, Oliver Chase stepped in and created a hand-crank machine that 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.
I’m not sure what gave Chase the idea to switch from herbal remedies to candy. Maybe it’s because candy feels medicinal enough. Or maybe since most of the herbal lozenges were half-sugar anyway, Chase decided it was time 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 was the inventor of those delightful little candy discs that have graced your local candy store 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. They were especially popular with Union soldiers in the Civil War. 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 their 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 decided to press 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 that was stamped in vegetable coloring, which gave the letters a reddish hue.
It’s a little hazy as to where Daniel got this idea from. There are a few theories here and there, including a romantic notion that Civil War sweethearts used the candy to send love mementos to their soldiers. However, the most accepted theory is that Oliver Chase and his brother took a cue from another popular candy known as Cockles. These were a shell-shaped candy that had messages tucked inside them 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 were an absolute smash, especially amongst courting couples and at weddings. By 1902, the lozenges had adopted other shapes. Horseshoes and baseballs thrilled the kids, but it was the hearts that really captured people’s…. soul (you thought I was going to say heart didn’t you). People were absolutely charmed with the short but very sweet messages of “Hug Me,” “Be True,” and “Marry Me” (bold for a little piece of candy). The heart shapes made them perfect for all things love-related, especially Valentine’s Day. They entwined so deeply with the holiday of romance that they were re-branded “Sweethearts,” and endless pink boxes of them appeared in the markets every February.
For a large part of American history, even well into the 20th century, Necco led the way in satiating the sweet tooth and charming people at Valentine’s Day. Their cheap cost kept them affordable even during the Great Depression. Historical rumor says that Admiral Richard Byrd included two tons of Necco wafers in the supply store for his trip to the South Pole. Necco Wafers were also a favorite treat amongst World War II GIs, since Uncle Sam found them very cheap and 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 there was just something comforting about seeing 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. They switched up their board. They tried to resurrect interest with new flavors and themes (have you tried the tropical wafers? Seriously – delicious). The layoffs began too.
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 lay off all its employees and shut its doors. To ensure us all that the threat was real, they filed for bankruptcy and sold their remaining assets at an auction.
People who once shunned Necco wafers and Valentine Sweethearts went into absolute panic mode. Something about the idea of them vanishing all together sparked a national crisis. 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 that was 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 was certainly successful. Necco spent the next few months passing around the buyer’s market like a roll of candy wafers. In the end, the final sale was made to Spangler Candy Company, who promised to continue making the Necco Wafers and Sweethearts under the familiar Necco banner. However, as of this writing, production of the famous wafers is still 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 with us 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. The messages have been updated a bit for the modern era – Text Me. Call Me. Tweet Me. Smile.
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 for them 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 is suddenly gone. Because that’s the thing about Necco Wafers. It’s about something 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 were 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 that 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…
“Chalk Full of Love: The Evolution of Conversation Hearts” – National Geographic
“The History of Conversation Hearts” – Huffington Post
The Spangler Candy Company
All Photos by M.B. Henry – And these are Brachs Conversation hearts. Not Necco. But they should be Necco. Bring back the Necco.
A Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone out there! Hope it’s filled with love and chalky hearts!