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.
“Gone are the classic flavors that I once loved,” one user on a board-game forum wrote of the revamped Sweethearts. “Seriously . . . how do you just up and change an American candy staple like this. I am very disappointed NECCO.”
So Necco toyed with the formula again, bringing it close to its original form. Fans rejoiced, and in its twilight, the candy enjoyed its greatest acclaim. It branched out with Spanish and sugar-free adaptations. After decades of tight competition, Sweethearts finally unseated heart-shaped boxes of chocolate as the most popular Valentine’s Day candy in 2017, according to Candystore.com. It retained the top slot the following year. The recognition came in the nick of time — just months later Necco closed down.
“It’s a pretty big hit to our collective history,” candy historian Jason Liebig said. “Candy has a lot of emotional connotations . . . the affection for them is tied to memories of childhood and simpler times. Whether you’re 70 or 17, you just lost a part of your childhood.”
The candy is survived by its glut of imitators — Brach’s, Sweet Tarts and Sour Patch Kids and, oddly, Breitbart, all have their own variations. Others have remembered the treat through effigies. Krispy Kreme is selling conversation-heart doughnuts with classic inscriptions. Jellio, a furniture company, honored the candy through heart-shaped vinyl seats. One website lets you say what you mean (in eight letters or fewer) with virtual Sweethearts.
A ray of hope remains. They say if you really love something, you should let it go, and if it’s meant to be, it will return to you. Spangler, the Ohio-based candy company that bought Necco at bankruptcy auction, has teased a possible return of Sweethearts at a later date. Perhaps the candy will be reborn in its original form or reincarnated as something more delectable and less beloved. Til then, MISS U.