After 116 years as America’s confectionery currency of affection, Sweethearts (LOVE U) are dead.
As candies go, Sweethearts were surprisingly controversial. They are chalky, dusty. Chomp them down, but your dentist won’t be pleased. The flavors? Unidentifiable (unless echoes of fruit and concrete count as a flavor).
Their epistles are often dated (FAX ME. BE GOOD.). Even modern messages sometimes felt, especially in the #MeToo era, a bit out of touch (BE MINE. BE A SPORT. DRESS UP.).
Despite all this, Sweethearts have dominated the realm of “sweets for my sweet.” Almost every school kid has exchanged rattly boxes on Valentine’s Day. Adults have deployed the candy in sweet surprises and wedding proposals. Sweethearts have been a lifeline for the tongue-tied, a vehicle for flirtation and a shorthand for affection.
But on the eve of Valentine’s Day, you’ll only find knockoffs of the candy. The originals are in short supply on the shelves at Walgreens or Walmart.
Its maker, the New England Confectionery Company, once the longest continuously operating candy company in the country, was sold in a bankruptcy auction in May. Its only factory shut down a few months after.
Sweethearts trace their lineage to Massachusetts in the 1860s. At the time, lozenges were a popular way to deliver medicine, but they were exhausting to produce. A shrewd Boston pharmacist, Oliver Chase, invented a machine that streamlined the process by rolling the candy concoction and pressing it into discs. He soon moved into the confectionery business, gaining fame for inventing Necco Wafers. In 1866, his brother Daniel started printing messages on the candy.
Sweethearts originally were larger and came in a variety of shapes: baseballs, postcards, watches. Some of their early sentiments were surprisingly direct, with messages such as, “How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate.” Later iterations spoke to love’s fickle nature and its stranger compulsions, according to Smithsonian.com: “Married in satin, marriage will not be lasting” and “Please send a lock of your hair by return mail.” But the candy as we know was born in 1902, when it assumed its heart shape, and the simple messages that would stand the test of time: (MARRY ME. BE MINE. KISS ME.).
Over the decades, the candy found its place as a Valentine’s Day staple. It took Necco 11 months of production — at around 100,000 pounds a day — to churn out the 8 billion conversation hearts that filled the shelves around the holiday, according to Candystore.com. Each batch bore about 80 messages, according to reporting from Time, with new ones introduced every year. A retrospective view of messages is a de facto library of bygone trends: (GROOVY. FAX ME. HEP CAT.).
The sturdy combination of gelatin, sugar, corn syrup and flavoring granted the treats a multiyear shelf life — not exactly a virtue in the modern marketplace. To keep up, the company overhauled its formula in 2010. It was chewier, with identifiable flavors and natural ingredients. But its fans felt betrayed. Sales tumbled, and customers flooded Necco with angry letters, calls and emails and took their fury to social media.