For boomers, every major holiday had its own type of candy associated with it. There was Halloween, of course, the mack daddy of all candy holidays, with a cornucopia of candy favorites. Christmas cornered the market on candy canes and chocolate bells, while Chanukah had chocolate gelt; Easter had chocolate Easter Bunnies, jelly beans and marshmallow chicks (Peeps). Then there was Valentine’s Day. Though chocolate truffles and chocolate-covered cherries proliferated among young boomers, the most nostalgic of Valentine’s Day candies today remains the conversation hearts.
Officially called Sweethearts, the candy has actually been around since 1902. Made by the New England Confectionery Company (Necco), the earliest iterations were shaped like sea scallops and contained a paper conversation in them like a fortune cookie. In the early 1890s, a machine to print vegetable dyes was invented. Necco began printing conversations on shapes that ranged from baseballs to horseshoes, watches to postcards. The early 1900s saw the addition of heart shapes.
Chances are, boomers had their first taste of Sweethearts in grade school. By the 1960s, it became commonplace for boomers to exchange Valentine’s Day cards to each member of their classroom. Teachers might distribute small boxes of conversation hearts to her pupils, or families that were of means might give their children packages of conversation hearts to distribute in their classrooms.
Let’s face it, the things tasted like chalk, but in prepubescent times, the conversations were the main issue. The “wrong” conversations were fraught with grade school significance that could amount to razzing from fellow classmates. The wrong conversations for Mister Boomer and his young cohorts to receive were the ones that hinted at being liked by girls. Nonetheless, like Necco Wafers, the candy had its fans. Sweethearts became the company’s best selling candy, with millions of pounds sold in the six-week period leading up to Valentine’s Day. To this day, the candy’s marketing manager states that the main market for the treats are moms, kids and teachers.
The conversations themselves have changed through the years, from the “Be Mine” and “Cutie Pie” of the boomer years. Last year was the first time Necco accepted suggestions, which resulted in modern updates like “Tweet Me.”
In May of 2018, Necco declared bankruptcy and the company was quickly sold. The new owners, a Los Angeles-based investment firm, leased the Revere, Massachusetts facility back to Necco, but the factory doors were shuttered in July of 2018. The new owners sold off Necco’s iconic brands, including candy dots, Clark Bar, Mighty Malt Milk Balls, and of course, Necco Wafers and Sweethearts. The company now in charge of producing Sweethearts for the next generation is none other than the Spangler Candy Company of Ohio. Boomers remember Spangler as the maker of Dum Dum suckers.
Since the brand was sold last summer, the new owners could not gear up production in time for this year’s Valentine’s Day. After all, according to Necco, Sweethearts made up 40 percent of the Valentine candy market. The candies that Necco were able to produce before closing are available online and at various retail outlets, but in seriously curtailed quantities.
If boomers want a fix of their original Sweetheart conversation hearts this Valentine’s Day, it’ll cost them since the price is reflecting the old saying of high demand and low supply equals higher prices.
What memories of Sweethearts conversation hearts on Valentine’s Day do you have, boomers?