Expressing love and affection on Valentine’s Day is a tradition dating back centuries, but here in New England, the practice was always extra sweet. Why? Sweethearts! Once made by Necco in Massachusetts for nearly 150 years, Sweethearts, the pastel candy “conversation hearts” stamped with sweet phrases of love and friendship, were long the most popular and best selling non-chocolate Valentine’s Day candy.
As of 2018, Sweethearts are no longer made by Necco. Learn more in the update at the bottom of this post.
We’ve already delved into Necco’s history in our previous post on Necco Wafers, but here’s a quick review. Until it filed for bankruptcy in 2018, Necco was the oldest continuously operating, multi-line candy company in the country. Based in Revere, MA, since 2002 (before that they were in Cambridge, and before that Boston), its history stretched back to 1847, when Oliver Chase invented America’s first candy-cutting machine. In 1901, his company joined forces with two other Boston-based confectioners to form Necco, and they churned out popular candies like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mary Jane candy, Haviland Mints, Clark Bars, Sky Bar, Mighty Malts, and the aforementioned wafers and hearts for more than a century.
But where did conversation hearts come from? It turns out they’re also part of the Chase family history. In 1866, Oliver’s brother Daniel created a machine that would press dyed letters into the candies his brother had invented. They were an immediate hit, and several companies began making their own — including Necco. It wasn’t until Necco acquired the Stark Candy Company in 1990, however, that they began using the Sweethearts brand name and became the leading manufacturer of conversation hearts candies. During its Necco days, 2 billion individual Sweethearts were produced every year!
Looking at the history of Sweethearts is truly like taking a trip back in time, conversationally speaking. The sayings on the hearts changed each year to reflect the latest trends in language and communication, so while some of the 40-something phrases (like Be Mine and Sweet Pea) are timeless, others (like Fax Me and Dig Me) were phased out for newer, better quips — sometimes with the help of the public. There was also New England favorite Wicked Cool, and (my personal favorite) Let’s Read, which was brought back from retirement in 2014.
Sweethearts might have been made by Necco, but they tasted a bit different than the well-known wafers. In recent years, the colorful hearts were updated to be bolder and fruitier, with flavors like orange, grape, strawberry, and green apple. There was also a line of chocolate hearts and tart hearts in flavors like watermelon, tangerine, and pink lemonade. Sweethearts might be old (at nearly 150 years old, we don’t think they’ll quibble with that), but for fans of all ages, it’s just not Valentine’s Day without them.
Do you remember getting and giving Sweethearts for Valentine’s Day?
Necco Sweethearts Update (2018)
In May 2018, Necco declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was purchased by Greenwich, CT-based Round Hill Investments for $17.3 million. Hopes for a rebound were abundant since Round Hill had been responsible for reviving troubled brands like Pabst Blue Ribbon, Chef Boyardee, and Hostess (including its venerated Twinkies), but on July 24, 2018, the Revere facility was suddenly shuttered. Approximately 230 workers and executives were laid off, and production of all candy lines stopped, ending the Necco Wafer’s reign as the country’s longest-running, continuously produced candy.
Round Hill would go on to sell off many of Necco’s long-running candy lines to other manufacturers. The Necco Wafer, Sweethearts conversation hearts, and Canada Mints were sold to the Spangler Candy Company of Ohio, best known for their Dum Dum Lollipops. Spangler quickly announced plans for both Necco Wafers and Sweethearts to return to store shelves. After a rocky relaunch in 2020, when a limited supply meant that many of the hearts were sold with (gasp!) no words or phrases, Sweethearts are back in 2021 with classic phrases plus new sayings inspired by timeless song lyrics from the last seven decades.
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.