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The Origin of the Conversation Heart

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Valentine's Day means chalky candy hearts with a lot to say. But what's behind these very loud little candies?

The story of conversation hearts began in 1847, when a Boston pharmacist named Oliver Chase longed for a way to get in on the apothecary lozenge craze. Lozenges were quickly gaining steam as the medicine conveyance of choice, and were also popular remedies for sore throats and bad breath. But making lozenges was complicated and time-consuming—the process involved a mortar and pestle, kneading dough, rolling it out, and cutting it into discs that would eventually become lozenges.

There had to be a better way, and Oliver came up with it. Inspired by the new wave of gadgets and tools that hit America as it industrialized, he invented a machine that rolled lozenge dough and pressed wafers into perfect discs. Oliver had inadvertently created America’s first candy-making machine, and before long, he had abandoned his pharmacy business to crank out miles of what would become New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) wafers.

Legend has it that Oliver’s NECCO wafers were carried by Civil War soldiers, and some speculate that the tradition of sending loving greetings to the troops morphed into the conversation heart, but those claims are hard to verify. What is clear is that as Oliver built his candy empire, his brother Daniel decided he wanted a piece of the action. 

Inspired by the growing market for Valentine’s cards (which were popularized in the United States by Esther Howland, also a resident of Boston at the time), Daniel wondered if it would be possible to print sentimental messages on candy. In 1866, he figured out a way to print words on candy with vegetable dye during the cutting process.

People loved conversation candies (they weren’t available in heart shapes until 1902) and their witty messages, which could stoke the flames of love or warn off flaky suitors. Daniel’s candies were bigger than today’s version and had phrases like “MARRIED IN WHITE YOU HAVE CHOSEN RIGHT” and “HOW LONG SHALL I HAVE TO WAIT? PLEASE BE CONSIDERATE” emblazoned on a pastel, scalloped wafer. 

By the turn of the century, the conversation heart was a Valentine’s cliché. Here’s how they were used at a Boston party in 1911:

Partners for the evening were found by means of candy “motto” hearts. These were broken in two, and each young lady was given a piece, but the men were obliged to hunt for theirs. As they were carefully hidden, this took some length of time and proved an excellent ‘ice breaker.’ The silly mottoes were read with laughter as the couples chose their tables.

Over the years, conversation hearts lost size, but gained many more phrases. NECCO estimates that it makes nearly 100,000 pounds of the hearts each day throughout the year in preparation for Valentine’s Day. Among this year’s selection? BFF, TE AMO, and GIRL POWER.

Additional Sources: Alfred Stillé and John Michael Maisch,The National Dispensatory: Containing the Natural History, Chemistry, Pharmacy, Actions and Uses of Medicines, Including Those Recognized in the Pharmacopœias of the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, with Numerous References to the French CodexSweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy The Mother of the Valentine,” WBUR News; "Civil War Soldiers and Conversation Hearts,” The Historical SocietyEntertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super BowlThe Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, Volume 15The History of Sweethearts; “2015’s 8 New Phrases for Conversation Hearts,” WGNA.

This post originally ran in 2015.

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Former NECCO CEO Has a Plan to Save the Company

It’s been a month of ups and downs for fans of candy company NECCO and its iconic sugary Wafers. In March, The Boston Globe reported the company is in desperate need of a buyer and that CEO Michael McGee notified the state of Massachusetts that most of their employees—around 395 of them—would likely face layoffs if a suitor isn't found by May.

That news caused a bit of a panic among candy lovers, who stormed CandyStore.com to hoard packs and packs of NECCO Wafers, should the company go under. In the weeks since the news about NECCO’s uncertain fate hit, sales of the company's products went up by 82 percent, with the Wafers alone increasing by 150 percent.

Seeing the reaction and knowing there is still plenty of space in the market for the venerable NECCO Wafers, the company’s former CEO, Al Gulachenski, reached out to CandyStore.com to lay out his plan to save the brand—most notably the Wafers and Sweethearts products.

The most important part of the plan is the money he’ll need to raise. Gulachenski is set to raise $5 to $10 million privately, and he’s creating a GoFundMe campaign for $20 million more to get his plan into motion. Once the funding is secure, the company will move to a new factory in Massachusetts that allows them to retain key executives and as many other employees as they can.

“I can promise you that if you donate you will own a piece of NECCO as I will issue shares to everyone that contributes money,” Gulachenski wrote on the GoFundMe page. “This company has been in our back yard for 170 years and it's time we own it.”

Gulachenski also elaborated that, as of now, there is another buyer interested in NECCO, but that buyer “is planning to liquidate the company, fire all the employees and close the doors of NECCO forever!”

So far, Gulachenski has raised only $565 of the $20 million needed. “I know it seems like a long way to go but I do expect some institutions to jump on board and get us most of the way there,” Gulachenski wrote in a GoFundMe update. “It is also likely we can get most of the company if we get to half of our goal.”

There is still a bit of a sour taste for candy fans to swallow, even if NECCO does get saved. According to Gulachenski, the Wafers and the Sweethearts may be the only products that the reorganized NECCO continues with. This could leave lovers of the company's other candies, like Clark Bars and Sky Bars, out in the cold.

“The sugar component Necco Wafer and Sweetheart is certainly the most nostalgic and recognizable brand, more than the chocolate,” Gulachenski told The Boston Globe. “It’s all going to depend how they decide to sell the company and liquidate.”

While you can still order the Wafers in bulk from Candystore.com, the site itself even says it has no idea when or if shipments will stop coming, especially as NECCO's future remains uncertain.

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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People Are Panic-Buying Necco Wafers Before They Disappear From Shelves
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The sugar wafers everybody loves to hate may not hold their spot on candy shelves for much longer. Necco is in need of a buyer, and according to CEO Michael McGee, the candy company may need to shutter for good if it doesn't find one within the coming weeks. As a result of the company's threatened status, Necco Wafers are suddenly a lot more popular, as the graph below from Candystore.com reveals.

News of the New England Confectionary Company's situation spread on March 12 when The Boston Globe reported McGee's announcement. That same day, Necco Wafer sales spiked more than 50 percent on CandyStore.com. Over the course of the month, sales of the candy rose 63 percent overall.

Necco Wafers Panic Buying from CandyStore.com

For any other candy, this sort of "panic-buying" wouldn't be surprising. If a beloved product looks like it might be taken off the market, people will hoard as much of it as they can while it's still available. But Necco Wafers aren't typically characterized as "beloved." In an earlier list of the best and worst Halloween candy published by Candystore.com, Necco Wafers ranked the fourth worst. Commenters compared the candy to both chalk and Tums, with one hater even declaring that, "Necco Wafers suck all moisture out of my mouth and all joy out of my soul."

Though they may not be the flashiest or tastiest candy, Necco Wafers do strike a nostalgia nerve in some buyers. Necco is the oldest continuously operating candymaker in the U.S., dating back to 1847. "It is a love/hate type of candy and people are super passionate about it," Clair Robins of Candystore.com tells Mental Floss. "They are perceived as an old-school classic, and even patriotic—soldiers ate them in the World Wars (both). But others think it's dry and gross and should die a painful death."

If Necco goes under, its signature wafer won't be the only product to go with it. The company also produces Clark Bars, Sky Bars, Mary Janes, Candy Buttons, and Sweethearts, so stock up on these classic candies while you still can.

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