Every February 14, friends, couples, and singles with crushes exchange little boxes of heart-shaped candies imprinted with flirty messages such as "Love Bug," "Kiss Me," and "Be Mine." Billions of these Sweethearts — or conversation hearts, as they're commonly known — are sold each year, primarily in the month or two leading up to Valentine's Day. In fact, aside from heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, no other candy is more emblematic of the romantic holiday.
But how, exactly, did they come to be so popular? And who came up with the idea to put messages on them in the first place? Read on for a brief history of the Valentine's Day candy aisle staple.
A Sweet Medical Innovation
Physicians and pharmacists are responsible for many of the delicious (but not always nutritious) goodies we enjoy today. Fig Newtons and corn flakes, for example, were originally intended as digestive aids. Tonic water was invented as a prophylactic against malaria. And “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda” — better known as 7-Up — was first marketed as a mood-stabilizer and hangover cure.
The chalky conversational Sweetheart also got its start thanks to the field of medicine. Back in 1847, a Boston pharmacist named Oliver Chase was looking for a faster way to produce sweet apothecary lozenges. These lozenges, which were commonly used to mask the taste of unpleasant medicines, were a huge fad at the time. But they were also difficult to manufacture.
“Making lozenges by hand was a painful and prolonged process that involved grinding ingredients with a mortar and pestle, kneading the mix into dough, and painstakingly cutting the dough into uniform discs,” Rebecca Rupp writes for National Geographic. But Chase was determined. He eventually discovered — or, rather, created — a workaround by inventing a hand-cranked lozenge-cutter.
The machine changed Chase’s life. Not long after he came up with it, he abandoned his pursuit to produce medicine and pivoted to confections instead. His signature sweets — known as “hub wafers” and, later, Necco Wafers — were a bona fide hit. During the Civil War, Union soldiers purportedly carried stashes of the chalky treats in their sacks. As one story goes, it became common for loved ones back home to mail the wafers to the front lines, often with love letters attached. Some believe this might be the origin of conversation hearts, but these claims are hard to verify. Others credit the rise of Valentine's Day cards, which had been invented in Boston just a few years earlier.
Edible Love Notes
In any case, conversation hearts weren’t the first sweet treats to come with love notes. In the 16th century, Brits exchanged “kissing comfits,” which were made of “sugar paste with musk, civet, ambergris, and orris powder,” and then pressed into molds with mottos on them, according to the New England Historical Society. Later, in the 19th century, some British hard candies came packaged with messages such as “Do you love me?” And in Germany, expressions of love are traditionally stamped onto Lebkuchenherz, heart-shaped gingerbreads popular at Oktoberfest celebrations and street carnivals.
In the U.S., Chase’s company established itself as the premiere maker of “conversation candies.” In the mid-19th century, it began selling popular confections called “cockles,” a type of crisp candy in the shape of a shell that came wrapped with flirtatious paper messages.
The real game-changer, however, came in 1866, after Chase’s brother Daniel invented a machine that could print messages directly on the candy. These newer conversational morsels — which were larger than the sweets we know today and came stamped with phrases like “Please send a lock of your hair by return mail” or “How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate” — quickly became popular among wedding parties and sweet-toothed sweethearts.
By the turn of the century, conversation candies were everywhere. In 1901, the Chase Company merged with two other confectioners to form the New England Confectionery Company — better known as NECCO — and began producing conversation candies in an array of sizes and shapes, including postcards, baseballs, horseshoes, watches, and hearts.
Of all these shapes, the conversation hearts were the most popular. According to a 1911 issue of The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, they were sometimes used as icebreakers at parties, where the hearts would be split in two and given to guests, who then had to find their "other half" for the evening. They even earned a shout-out in the 1908 book Anne of Green Gables, which mentions Gilbert giving Anne "a little pink candy heart with a gold motto on it, 'You are sweet.'"
The Enduring Appeal of Conversation Hearts
More than a century later, the hearts are still among the best-selling Valentine's Day candies in the U.S. Many of the original messages — such as "Marry Me" and "Be Mine" — endure today, but NECCO also began adding more "modern" phrases in the 1990s. (Anyone remember the "Fax Me" heart?)
Recently, however, the future of conversation hearts appeared to be in jeopardy. After falling into the hands of multiple private equity firms, NECCO — once America’s oldest continuously operating candy company — declared bankruptcy and stopped producing the original Sweethearts. Fortunately for fans, Spangler Candy stepped in to acquire the brand and has promised to keep the candy flowing in the future. In keeping with NECCO's tradition, they're even adding new phrases for 2021 — all inspired by popular love songs from the last seven decades. (Among the 21 additions: "Sugar Sugar," "My Girl," "Crazy N Luv," "All of Me," and "Lean on Me.") You can also find conversation hearts from Brach and other candy companies.