Photograph by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post via Getty
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Talk sweetly to me.
Photograph by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post via Getty
The Plate

Chalk Full of Love: The Evolution of Conversation Hearts

If it’s Valentine’s Day, it’s time for conversation hearts.

Americans collectively buy about eight billion of these chalky little tidbits a year, almost all in the six weeks before February 14. Today they account for about 40 percent of the Valentine’s candy market, second only to (far yummier) chocolates.

Conversation hearts have been delivering their abbreviated and romantic(ish) messages since the turn of the last century, but conversational candy has a far longer and wordier history. According to Tim Richardson, author of Sweets: A History of Candy, candy with appealing and/or seductive messages dates at least to the 1820s when, on New Year’s Day in France, bonbons were often packaged in envelopes decorated with “fables, historical subjects, songs, enigmas, jeux de mots, and various little gallantries”—presumably all more substantive than CUTIE PIE, HUG ME, and SWEET TALK.

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Packaging machinery pours colorful candy conversation hearts into small red boxes at the NECCO candy factory. Photograph by Lyn Hughes, CORBIS

By the mid-19th century in Britain, boiled sweets—that is, hard candies—were being manufactured with short messages inside (“Do You Love Me?”; “No, I Won’t Ask Momma”), though the trend was somewhat dampened by activists in the temperance movement, who began handing out rival sweets containing such homilies as “Misery, sickness, and poverty are the effect of drunkenness.”

In the United States, conversational candy is rooted in a health craze. The New England Confectionery Company (NECCO), producer of Sweethearts and one of the oldest candy companies in America, traces its origins to 1847, when Boston pharmacist Oliver Chase became interested in devising a more efficient way to produce apothecary lozenges, all the rage in the mid-19th century for treating everything from sore throats to bad breath.

Making lozenges by hand was a painful and prolonged process, that involved grinding ingredients with a mortar and pestle, kneading the mix into dough, and painstakingly cutting the dough into uniform discs. Chase came up with a hand-cranked, table-top machine capable of efficiently doing all of the above – and once it was up and running, he promptly jumped from pharmaceuticals to confectionery, adding sugar and flavoring to the dough and churning out the hugely popular candies that would become known as NECCO wafers.

Necco wafers were a hit. Rumor has it that Union soldiers in the Civil War – who referred to them as Hub wafers – toted them in their haversacks. Being cheap, they were a popular treat during the Great Depression; being portable, they appealed to Admiral Richard Byrd, who included over two tons of them in the supplies for his expedition to the South Pole. During World War II, the American government requisitioned much of the output of the Necco factory to supply the sweet teeth of the military.

In its early days, NECCO also produced scallop-shaped candies called cockles, each containing a catchy message printed on colored paper. In the 1860s, Chase’s brother Daniel found a way to bypass the paper and stamp words directly onto the candy with vegetable dye. The results—clearly heftier than today’s Sweethearts—were popular among courting couples and wedding parties, with messages such as “How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate”; “Married in satin, love will not be lasting”; “Married in pink, he will take to drink”; and—my favorite—“Please send a lock of your hair by return mail.”

At the turn of the 20th century, NECCO began producing their chatty wafers in the shape of thumbnail-size hearts, which necessarily meant paring messages down to their bare bones. Originally known as “motto hearts,” these carried such skimpy, but still-popular, bon mots as BE TRUE, KISS ME, and MARRY ME.

Today, each year’s run of conversation hearts includes about 60 different short-and-sweet messages, which often serve as capsule portraits of the times. In 1998, for example, with the rise in popularity of the home computer, the company pumped out such high-tech hearts as EMAIL ME and WWW.CUPID; in 2000, up-to-date additions included GIRL POWER and a peace symbol. Various years have also celebrated sports (DREAM TEAM, ALL-STAR, #1 FAN); animals (COOL CAT, BEAR HUG, TOP DOG); and food (TOP CHEF, SUGAR PIE, HONEY BUN).

Mottoes come and go with popular culture and jargon. Now shelved are the antiquated DIG ME and HEP CAT, and gone is OCCUPY MY HEART, a reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement that sprang up in 2011. Also mercifully defunct are Sweethearts’ nod to fans of the Twilight series, which included LIVE 4 EVER, DAZZLE, and BITE ME. Latest on the market these days are LUV 2 DANCE, BFF, and a markedly non-conversational mustache emoji and smiley face.

One thing you won’t see on a NECCO conversation heart: mean messages. Though Bart Simpson famously came up with the endearments U STINK and PRIZE PIG in the 1993 episode “I Love Lisa,” NECCO steadfastly refuses periodic public requests for such disillusioned messages as GET A PRENUP and CALL MY LAWYER.

But should you receive a conversation heart that doesn’t strike your fancy, there’s a surefire way of dealing with it. When redheaded orphan Anne Shirley, heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables, is presented by Gilbert Blythe with a candy heart reading YOU ARE SWEET, she picks it up with the tips of her fingers, drops it on the floor, and grinds it to dust beneath her heel.

Want to make your own conversation hearts? See a recipe and instructions here.

Or invent and send your own virtual candy heart.