Those tiny candy hearts with Valentine’s Day sayings have 170 years of history

They may not be top of mind this Valentine’s Day, but you’ll likely see them scattered around tables and in dishes next to the flowers, candy and other Valentine’s gifts that are given out this year.

We’re talking about Sweethearts, and yes that’s their official name although they’re also referred to as conversation hearts. They’ve seemingly been around forever. And as and it turns out, there’s an interesting history behind these sugary treats that dates back to 1847.

A candy-making machine

That’s when Boston pharmacist Oliver Chase was looking to get in on the apothecary lozenge craze. Chase had a vision for the kind of candies he wanted to create but the prospect appeared daunting, as the manufacturing process would have involved a mortar and pestle, kneading the dough, rolling the dough and cutting it into small discs that would eventually become lozenges.

Chase opted to cut to the chase by inventing a machine to do the job, and he started his own candy factory. He eventually became so enamored with his new operation that he abandoned the pharmacy business to produce scores of what would ultimately become New England Confectionery Co. (Necco) wafers.

Adding the messages

In 1866, his brother Daniel jumped into the business upped their game by adding some catchy sayings on the candies, which back then were often seen at weddings. He designed a machine that could stamp messages onto treats with such sayings as “Married in pink, he will take a drink,” “Married in white, you have chosen right” and “Married in satin, love will not be lasting.”

The candies didn’t assume their signature heart shape until 1901 and the messages later evolved to include “Kiss Me,” “It’s Love,” “True Love” and “Call Me.” But they’re always being updated. In the 1990s, Necco Vice President Walter Marshall added “Email me” and “FAX me” to the mix. The company receives hundreds of suggestions a year on new sayings, and some fans are amazed by the company’s whole production process which is explained in a YouTube video.

“The part where they mix the colors together is so satisfying to watch,” YouTube viewer Caroline Lamar said.

Necco isn’t the only company to cash in on the heart-shaped candy craze. Brach’s makes a variety of conversation hearts, including Tiny Conversation Hearts, Large Conversation Hearts, Sweet & Sour Conversation Hearts and Tiny Emoticon Conversation Hearts.

The appeal

So what’s the underlying appeal of these candies?

“I think it’s that they allow people to give nice personal messages and loving hearts to others,” said Rachel Flores, co-owner of the p.o.p. Candy Co. in Santa Monica. “I remember getting these in grade school from fellow classmates. It’s a fun way to communicate friendship or a message of love — and I think that’s pretty cool.”

Flores’ candy company produces artisanal butter crunch treats that are sold online and at pop-up events throughout Southern California. The company has tapped into the message trend with small packages of butter crunch candies that bear such sayings as “You’re So Sweet,” “BFF,” “Be Mine” and “Love Candy.”

And Flores swears up and down that a candy treat can sometimes make a bad day better.

“I was recently talking to a customer about the week in politics and she said, ‘Can you just make me feel better with something sweet on my tongue?’ ” Flores said. “Even if you don’t eat candy very often … it takes you back to your childhood.”

Figures from Statista.com show that U.S. sales of all candy totaled nearly $2.8 billion in the six weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day in 2016.

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