- Donovan Darling
CANDY HEARTS: A History Of Sweet Treats
Necco wafers, candy hearts, Sweethearts, conversation hearts. The candy goes by many names, with silly messages and a chalky consistency. The notorious candy hearts have a strange history that involves a pharmacy and America’s first candy machine.
Our story begins in 1847, with a pharmacist named Oliver Chase, who invented a machine to produce lozenges. Back then, apothecary lozenges were popular for sore throats and other illnesses. But 175 years ago, the process to make a lozenge was labor-intensive: pulverizing medicine and sugar paste by hand with a mortar and pestle, kneading dough, then rolling and cutting out little discs. Considered the first candy machine, Oliver invented a lozenge cutter to simplify the process, and smartly shifted from making medicine to making candy, founding Chase and Company, which later became New England Confectionery Company, or Necco!
Here’s where the story gets really interesting! Legend tells us that Union soldiers during the Civil War carried Necco wafers, known as “hub wafers,” and Oliver Chase might have been inspired by the love letters these soldiers carried. Historians suggest instead that Daniel Chase, Oliver’s brother, was inspired by the growing popularity of Esther Howland’s Valentine Day cards which began selling in the mid-1800s. A third and more likely explanation is the oddly named cockle, a popular candy shaped like a scallop seashell which contained a “motto” printed on a thin roll of paper. Daniel cleverly improved upon this design to print the messages directly onto candy, by using a felt roller pad wetted with red vegetable coloring.
However, Daniel’s “conversation candies” or “motto lozenges” weren’t heart-shaped until later in 1902. Up until that time, their candy was sold in a simple disc shape, but eventually were sold in shapes like baseballs, watches, and horseshoes. The candy hearts were hugely successful, and over the next 100 years other smaller companies began selling similar candies. In 1990, Necco acquired Stark Candy Company and became the “leading manufacturer in conversation hearts.” Today, the company claims to manufacture nearly 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts every day from mid-February through January and approximately 8 billion candy hearts each year.
But what is a candy heart exactly? Necco offers classic Sweethearts, as well as chocolate, sugar-free, “dazzled,” and “color your own” varieties. According to their website: “Manufacturers combine sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, flavors, gums and colors into a mixing machine to create a dough, which then goes into a machine that presses it flat, stamps it with sayings and cuts it into hearts. After 30 minutes in a “drying tunnel,” the six different heart flavors are mixed together and packaged.” Surprisingly, they’re not made out of chalk!
Daniel Chase’s original printed lozenges were larger and therefore included longer phrases, like “HOW LONG SHALL I HAVE TO WAIT? PLEASE BE CONSIDERATE” and “WHY IS A STYLISH GIRL LIKE YOU A THRIFTY HOUSEKEEPER?” Obviously, times have changed! There were also wedding-themed sayings, such as “MARRIED IN WHITE, YOU HAVE CHOSEN RIGHT,” “MARRIED IN SATIN, LOVE WILL NOT BE LASTING.” Previous sayings like the timeless “FAX ME” and “GROOVY” have been discontinued. “BE MINE” and “KISS ME” you may be more familiar with.