Sweethearts Candy

on February 5, 2006

Be Mine. Be True. Kiss Me.

For more than a century, romantics have found the right words with Sweethearts Conversation Hearts. Eight billion candy hearts, printed with messages of love, are made each year by the New England Confectionery Co., headquartered in Revere, Mass. (pop. 47,283).

“A lot of us with gray hair remember these as kids,” says Domenic Antonellis, 63, president and CEO of NECCO, America’s oldest multi-line candy company, founded in 1847. “The nostalgia appeals to people.”

The affectionate confection dates from the 1800s when messages printed on colored paper were slipped into crispy seashell-shaped candies called cockles. Oliver Chase, NECCO founder, and his brother Daniel Chase turned the idea into America’s best-loved Valentine’s Day candy after Daniel invented a machine in 1866 to print sayings directly onto candy. First called Motto Hearts, the treats became the familiar pastel Sweethearts Conversation Hearts in 1902.

The edible terms of endearment, sold only between New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day, are so beloved that NECCO manufactures them year-round in plants in Revere; Thibodaux, La., (pop. 14,431) and Pewaukee, Wis. (pop. 11,783).

“The shell of the machinery is basically the same,” says Bill Leva, vice president of operations. Batter for the heart candies, made in six flavors, is mixed in 550-pound batches and rolled out in a 3-foot-wide “blanket.” Printing dyes stamp 80 different sayings at once in red ink on the confectionery blanket, which is cut into heart-shaped candies.

The recipe for Sweethearts Conversation Hearts hasn’t changed for more than a century, but the sugarcoated words get updated every year, says Lory Zimbalatti, NECCO’s marketing manager and historian.

Before World War I, the candies were larger, allowing flowery phrases, such as “Please send a lock of your hair by return mail” and “How long shall I have to wait? Pray be considerate.”

“Today you have to be short and sweet,” Zimbalatti says. Two words with four letters each fill a half-inch heart and two words with five letters each fill a 3/4-inch heart. But brevity doesn’t stop the smitten.

NECCO receives nearly a thousand suggestions for new phrases each year. Company employees consider the proposals and select 10 new ways to say “I Love You.” This season’s sayings celebrate the coziness of home and family with “Home Soon” and “Sweet Home.”

Sayings such as “Hug Me” and “Be Mine” are classics. Others, including “Dig Me” and “Hep Cat,” have been retired.

Customers can have their own words printed on the candy hearts, too, if they buy an entire production run of 3,500 pounds, or 1.6 million hearts, which costs about $7,000.

Most people find the perfect words already printed on Sweethearts Conversation Hearts. Such was the case for Mike Waltz, 44, of Mason, Mich., (pop. 6,714) who popped the question to his sweetheart Chris, 38, on Valentine’s Day 2004. He presented her with a box chock-full of hearts printed with “Marry Me.”

“I cleaned out the stores,” he says. “I might find three ‘Marry Me’s’ in a 1-pound bag.” He sent a heartfelt request to NECCO and an employee handpicked a box of magic words from the production line.

“The box is sealed and I’ll never open it,” declares Chris, who found her answer—”I Do”—in another box of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts.

The couple married Jan. 14, 2005. They gave each wedding guest a box of America’s favorite Valentine’s Day candy.

Visit www.necco.com for more information.

Found in: Traditions