It all started in the 1840s when a Boston pharmacist named Oliver Chase invented a machine that made it easier to create apothecary lozenges. Chase’s lozenge cutter is credited as the first American candy machine. He started off making medicinal lozenges for sore throats and bad breath, but later turned to creating candy.
These candy lozenges would go on to become the Necco Wafers that are still around today.
Soon after inventing the wafers, Chase teamed up with his brother, Silas Edwin, to create Chase and Company, which then became the New England Confectionary Company, or NECCO.
Necco Wafers’ popularity took off during the Civil War and continued to be a popular candy for decades. Because they were portable and wouldn’t melt, they were often shipped overseas.
So, what do Necco Wafers have to do with conversation hearts?
Legend has it the idea for conversation hearts came from people sending love letters to the troops during the Civil War. Since they were already carrying Necco Wafers, why not press the love messages directly into the candy?
The more plausible explanation, however, is that the idea for conversation hearts came from the candy’s predecessor, a scalloped candy that had a message written on colored paper tucked inside like a fortune cookie.
In the 1860s, another Chase brother, Daniel, developed a machine that stamped words directly on the candies with red vegetable dye. Back then, the candies came in all different shapes, like baseballs, horseshoes, and watches, and they featured much longer sayings. (Hearts weren’t added to the lineup until 1901.)
By the early 1900s, the candies had scaled down in size and began to feature one-liners, like the ones seen today. The original mottos of “Be Mine” and “Kiss Me” remain popular, but some of the other phrases on conversation hearts have not withstood the test of time, like “Fax Me” or “Dig Me.” NECCO even produced special Twilight hearts, with phrases like “Bite Me,” and Spanish-language Sweethearts, with phrases like “Te Amo.”
NECCO’s Sweethearts became the most popular non-chocolate candy sold for Valentine’s Day with over eight billion hearts sold in the six weeks leading up to the holiday, according to Smithsonian Magazine. To make that many candy hearts, production took NECCO 11 months to complete. Unfortunately, NECCO declared bankruptcy and shut its doors in 2018. Spangler Candy acquired the rights to the candy in 2019.
Because of this, Necco Wafers and Sweethearts were not produced for two years, but both were brought back in 2020 due to popular demand. Today, Sweethearts are officially back on the shelves and have re-staked their claim as the most popular non-chocolate candy for Valentine’s Day.