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