Every time Valentine’s Day rolls around, the adults of the world exchange flowers and elaborate boxes of chocolate with their loved ones. Kids, on the other hand, have always preferred those little heart-shaped candies with the chalky flavor and Cupid-like power, each emblazoned with a short message such as “Be Mine” or “Kiss Me”. That’s right, we’re talking about Sweethearts, a beloved confection that has always been happy to do the talking when you were too shy to verbally profess your love.
Sweethearts have been around for over a hundred years. Their story begins with a man named Oliver R. Chase, and a machine he invented in 1847 that could cut shapes from candy wafers. To produce his candy, he created the New England Confectionery Company, or Necco for short, and found quick success thanks to those rolls of quarter-sized candy wafers bearing the company name (yes, the ones that are still sold to this very day). Having long-since developed a technique for printing messages on their wafers, NECCO introduced Sweethearts in 1902 (alongside some other less-than-endearing shapes, such as watches and horseshoes). Sold in a small pink box with a cellophane window, Sweethearts were quickly embraced by the public, especially children, who enjoyed them as much for the messages as for their actual flavor.
The candy achieved its enormous popularity by becoming a classroom tradition on the most romantic day of the year. Sweethearts provided one of the few ways to profess your love without actually having to speak the words. They were passed from hand to hand, desk to desk, as we communicated our intentions in the safest way we knew how – through candy. And if you were lucky enough to get an “I Love You” heart from the secret object of your affection, it was just about the best feeling imaginable. On the other hand, you could also give a “Be Mine” heart to Sally, only to find that she already had a stack of them. But, at least at the end of the day, we all pretty much knew where we stood, and there was always next year.
Of course, the times have a way of changing, and, in recent years, phrases like “Cutie Pie” have been retired, in favor of modern messages such as “Tweet Me” and “Get Real.” Perhaps more bittersweet is that the flavor and consistency have changed as well. The candy is now softer and the taste is markedly different, far more tangy than before. So, if you haven’t had some of these treats in a while and are thinking about heading over to the store, be forewarned that those aren’t quite the Sweethearts of your youth.
That’s not to say that their popularity has waned any. The company works year-round just to meet the demand on Valentine’s Day. That means making and storing 8 billion of them, which, once they have reached store shelves at the end of January, will sell out completely in about six weeks time. Considering that confectionery feat, it’s probably safe to say that Sweethearts will remain the most popular Valentine’s candy for the foreseeable future.
If Necco Sweethearts played a role in your childhood, whether they helped you win the affections of another, or if you simply liked eating them by the handful, we’d love for you to share your memories in our comments section. Meanwhile, we tip our hats to this iconic candy that has played the role of Cupid for over a century.