Lately I've had a craving for conversation hearts, probably because it's been years since I've downed a box. Growing up and living in New England, I'm quite familiar with conversation hearts, and the company that makes them, NECCO, or New England Confectionary Company. Whether you're married, matched up, or single, Valentine's Day just isn't the same without these candies, which are cheap, conveniently packaged into their own little boxes for giving, fairly low in calories, and fat free.
I had thought the candy's origins were based in the 50s, making them a true retro candy, but in poking around online for their history, I discovered that these treats have been delighting consumers for over a hundred years. It's a long story, but in 1847 a man named Oliver Chase invented the Peppermint Lozenge cutting machine, which stamped out candy wafers (we know them today as NECCO wafers.) Mr. Chase and a business partner named Silas Evan formed the Chase Candy Company.
In 1860 Daniel Chase, Oliver's brother, invented a machine that could print text on the peppermint lozenges. These inspired the first “conversation” candies that were not in the shape of hearts but rather shells and text that was inscribed on a foil wrapper and not the candy itself.
In 1900, one year before the Chase Candy Co. merged with three other candy companies to become the New England Confectionary Company, the first Motto Candy was invented and called Sweet Hearts even though it was in the shapes of baseballs, horseshoes, and watches - not hearts. Their sizes allowed for longer imprinted sayings. Eventually the sayings got shorter and were reduced to one to two lines which fit perfectly on a heart shaped candy, and conversation hearts were officially introduced to the public in 1902.
They're only produced for a six week period, between January 1 and Valentine's Day, and about 8 billion hearts are stamped out each year. The recipe - which consists of mostly sugar, corn syrup, flavorings, and cornstarch - has remained virtually unchanged to this day. The mixed dough has a Play-doh like consistency which is then rolled out, imprinted, and stamped.
NECCO has done a great job with keeping up with the times, coming out with a new set of sayings each year that reflect current culture. This year it's weather and eco sayings, which include "Nature Lover", "In a Fog", "Chill Out", and "Heat Wave."
There's at least one company out there that I found on the Web that makes its own custom naughty conversation hearts...let's just say they're stamped with sayings that rhyme with words such as "truck" and "rock"...but I personally hope NECCO never goes down that road. I for one believe that conversation hearts should remain just as they've always been: kid-friendly, innocent, and...sweet.