Adore me. Call me. Love me. Jump 4 Me.
If these were incessant text messages, the demands would read as a little bit creepy. But printed on the artificially pastel-colored Sweethearts candies and exchanged among friends, they’re nostalgic and endearing. I remember being in grade school and passing out Valentines to my peers in brown paper bags, excitedly tearing into a box of these heart-shaped candies, and being mildly disappointed by how chalky they taste. But nevertheless, Sweethearts are the quintessential Valentine’s Day candy, surpassing sales of heart-shaped boxes of chocolates two years in a row.
Despite their dominance during the romantic holiday, Sweethearts are taking a break in 2019. It’s not you -- it’s them. After struggling with declining profits the past 15 years and “serious violations” discovered by the FDA (including rodent pellets “too numerous to count” and the discovery of “a dead rodent which measured approximately 12 inches in length”), the New England Confectionery Company -- abbreviated as Necco -- shut down its Massachusetts factory last summer. It’s a sad blow to fans of the candy company, which is considered the first candy company in the United States. Necco has been making sugary treats since 1847 -- including its namesake Necco Wafers, candy buttons, and Mary Janes.
The Sweethearts that we all know and love actually date back to 1902. “Back then, besides hearts, [Necco] also produced candy in other various shapes such as postcards, baseballs, horseshoes and watches,” according to Necco’s (now shuttered) website. They also weren’t called Sweethearts just yet; they were modeled after a candy called a “cockle” and later known as “mottoes” in reference to their dye printed texts that delighted kids and adults alike. The nostalgic recipe had also not changed in over a century and consisted of a mixture of sugar, gelatin, corn syrup, gums, coloring, and flavoring.
When “mottoes” were first introduced by Necco co-founder Daniel Chase, they were used for entertaining dinner guests, as favors at weddings, and as vehicles for flirtation. “In this golden era, a young gentleman said it with candy,” explains Louis Untermeyer in A Century of Candymaking, a book put out by Necco in 1947 in celebration of its 100th anniversary. “Instead of driving up to his girl’s doorway and honking his horn furiously, he ceremoniously paid a Sunday evening visit [and] presented her with an elaborately wrapped candy gift box… He would press the important piece of candy into her hand. ‘Will you be mine?’ it read.”
“The enduring popularity of NECCO’s Sweethearts can be attributed to a number of factors: innovation, sentimentality, and smart business decisions,” says Darlene Lacey, a candy historian who’s curated the Candy Wrapper Museum and authored Classic Candy: America’s Favorite Sweets. “The idea of candy with personalized messages was not brand new at this time… However, conversation hearts with their numerous sayings were novel in that you could choose just the right message for the one you love."
The fact that they didn’t spoil, nor did they really break during transport, also added to their lasting power as one of America’s favorite candies. Boxes of the Necco’s treats were delivered to soldiers during both world wars -- a sweet reminder of Americana for all the homesick soldiers overseas. In addition to the patriotism, Necco’s candy and its factory were a shining beacon within the greater Boston community.