The Untold Truth Of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts

Every year, Valentine's Day rolls around, and every year all of the heart-shaped candies, pillows, and frosted cookies fill store shelves. And whether you're heading to the store for a box of foiled Valentine's with googly-eyed puppies and kittens or a giant box of chocolates, it's pretty difficult to miss one of the most quintessential additions to the Valentine's section that has been running for decades — Sweethearts Conversation Hearts.

Oh, those sweet little conversation hearts. This is the candy that will forever live in the same realm of debate as Peeps and candy corn. Either you love them, or you hate them, and if you love them, you certainly may have missed them on shelves in 2019.

Sweethearts Conversation Hearts have been a part of people's lives for over 100 years, and pretty well anyone you ask will have a recollection of gifting them in their kindergarten classroom, or using them to make a sweet gesture for a loved one. They're a classic candy, conveying love or professing sweet little notes to anyone who comes upon them. 

But with such a longstanding run, and a bit of a hiatus in between, there certainly must be a whole lot more to these little message candies than just sugar. What exactly does their storied past look like? We decided to take a closer look to find out. This is the untold truth of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts.

Sweethearts Conversation Hearts have been around for over a century

For most people, those little hearts bring back so many memories from Valentine's Day, and may feel like they've been around forever. The truth is, they're almost right. Sweethearts Conversation Hearts really do go back a long time.

The beginning of the conversation heart goes back to the mid-1800s, when a pharmacist in Boston invented a machine to make it easier to produce lozenges. At the time, lozenges were all the rage, providing a much-needed remedy for sore throats. According to HuffPost, making lozenges during that time required mashing up sugar and medicine with a mortar and pestle, mixing the dough, rolling it out flat, and then cutting the disc shapes — quite the laborious process. But In 1847, Oliver Chase created a cutter for lozenges that changed all of that, and it became considered America's first candy machine.

Over time, Chase ended up using the machine strictly for candy making, eventually founding Necco, or the New England Confectionary Company. The candy he produced were candy lozenges, or Necco Wafers, as they're called today. In 1866 Chase's brother, Daniel, figured out a way to use vegetable coloring to press words on the candies. The heart shape came later, in 1902, as the Chase brothers started cutting out baseballs, horseshoes, and hearts instead of the typical wafers.

Sweethearts Conversation Hearts went missing for one Valentine's season

Necco had been the longest continuously operating candy company in the U.S. until 2018. But after an incredibly long run of making the conversation hearts, over 100 years, Necco's candy line came to a shocking, unfortunate halt. According to the Boston Globe, the Necco plant located in Revere, Massachusetts, was shut down in July 2018. Round Hill Investments LLC purchased Necco for 17.3 million at a bankruptcy auction in May of 2018, then sold it to an unnamed company in July of that same year. 

By the fall of 2018, that unnamed company sold to Spangler Candy Co., best known for its production of Dum Dums lollipops and Circus Peanuts, with the intention of getting their candy heart production back up to original numbers.

But when the company took over, there wasn't enough time to keep production of the beloved candy hearts up for Valentine's Day 2019. "There are a lot of manufacturing challenges and unanswered questions at this point, and we want to make sure these brands meet consumer expectations when they re-enter the market," chairman and CEO of Spangler, Kirk Vashaw, told Food Business News in 2018. "We look forward to announcing the Sweethearts relaunch for the 2020 Valentine season and hope to reintroduce Necco Wafers to the marketplace in 2019."

They make and sell a ton of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts

If you're going to be one of the longest-running candy companies in U.S. history, you certainly need to have a secret, and you definitely need to have a plan to pump out the product. Before closing up shop, Necco had been producing more than eight billion Sweethearts annually. According to Smithsonian Magazine, it was America's number one candy sold during the Valentine's season, with Sweethearts accounting for close to 80 percent of Valentine's candy sales.

According to Better Homes & Gardens, Necco would start production from late February and go through January, just in time to have enough stock for the heart-filled holiday, making about or 100,000 pounds of conversation hearts each day. 

The company would sell its full supply of candy produced in the six weeks that lead up to Valentine's Day, and it took an entire year to refill that amount. With these production numbers, it's no wonder Spangler needed to halt their distribution in 2019 after taking over. It would have been nearly impossible to be able to produce enough for their normal Valentine's Day sales in just a few months.

Sweethearts Conversation Hearts are back on shelves, but with limited supply

After a hiatus for 2019's Valentine's season, Spangler announced that they're back in business, with the forever loved conversation hearts on shelves in 2020. But that certainly doesn't come without a catch. As it turns out, the production schedule to bring the conversation hearts brand up to full production had a few hiccups along the way, especially when it came to the equipment.

According to CNBC, moving the special Sweethearts-making equipment from the shutdown Revere factory in Massachusetts to the new location required 60 truckloads of equipment to be dismantled and reassembled —with some large pieces even needing to be removed through the roof by crane. Spangler's spokesperson, Diana Moore Eschhofen, said the whole process took about a year, leaving the company scrambling to meet production deadlines. 

"Based on consumer response and the technical challenges, we are not going to be able to meet all of the consumer demand for 2020," Eschhofen told CNBC

For now, that means the hearts are back, but with limited supply for 2020. Die-hard conversation heart lovers should look to major nationwide drug stores like CVS and Walgreens first in order to score a box, according to Eschhofen. 

Some Sweethearts Conversation Hearts may look a bit different in 2020

As you can imagine, with any major purchase of a long-running candy company, more than one thing can (and probably will) go wrong during the transition process. And especially when you're moving pounds and pounds of manufacturing equipment to different warehouses, there's definitely an increased potential for things to go awry.

The 2020 supply of conversation hearts has definitely been effected by the manufacturing equipment transition, and Spangler's spokesperson told CNBC that, in addition to a limited supply on shelves this year, the hearts may not look the way you're used to. Those cute "conversation" hearts might not be as talkative as usual.

As it turns out, the printer that is used to press those sweet little sayings proved to be quite unreliable for its new owners. Spangler ordered a new printer, which ended up getting damaged during production and wasn't completely fixed. 

In order to keep production from being slowed down even more, some packages of conversation hearts were supplemented with more blank hearts than you would usually find. 

"We know that's disappointing, but it's a disappointment for us, too," Spangler's spokesperson, Diana Moore Eschhofen, explained. 

Here's to hoping next year's batch is just as boisterous as usual.

The original Sweethearts Conversation Hearts recipe is back too

While working toward a revamp of their Sweetheart Conversation Hearts in 2010, Necco decided to switch up the flavors, taking away banana, cherry, and wintergreen and swapping those flavors with bright blue raspberry, lemon, and green apple. But as you might imagine would happen, people went a little wild and protested the change.

The next year, in 2011, the company relented. They stuck with the new flavors, but dialed back the boldness of those flavors, and at the same time made the candies softer and chewier.

But now that there's a new sheriff in town, Spangler announced that they're bringing back the original recipe. After the purchase of the candy company, Spangler discovered the original recipe that Necco had continuously tweaked over the years, and they've decided to restore it to its original form. And with that change, they're bringing back the banana and wintergreen flavors. Die-hard fans are sure to be happy about that one.

Necco once asked customers what Sweethearts Conversation Hearts should say

According to a 2011 interview with TIME, Necco had been stamping close to 80 different sayings on their hearts every year. In an effort to update the product and keep things fresh, Necco hit the web in 2010 soliciting suggestions from consumers about what the candies should say. For the first time, fans of the candy had a say in what kinds of conversation those conversation hearts could be carrying on.

Necco's marketing director at the time, Aimee Scott, said they received over 10,000 submissions during their call out. The top three sayings submitted were "Tweet Me," "Text Me," and "Love Bug," and a few others they decided to use were "Puppy Love" and "You Rock." 

But even with changes in sayings, one remained the same — the "Marry Me" saying is definitely one of the most popular that they'll never lose.

The original Sweethearts Conversation Hearts were very different

The Sweetheart Candy Hearts on the market in the late '90s and the beginning of the 2000s have always been pretty cheeky. Sayings like "Honey Bun" and "I Got U Babe" have been spotted on the tiny candy hearts, with later additions incorporating social media phrases and sayings more common in the current day. Each of the sayings has to fit in a specific pattern in that small space on the heart, with no more than five letters on top and four on the bottom, depending on the phrase.

Before the small heart shape came on the market in 1902, the candy wafers had far more surface space, allowing for a bit gushier of a message — and it wasn't printed on the candy. The shape was similar to a shell, with a little paper inside it, resembling today's fortune cookies. The rolled up papers inside the candies expressed things like "Why is a stylish girl like you a thrifty housekeeper?" and "How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate." 

But there were also several wedding-themed sayings that made the candies the perfect addition to tying the knot — one reason they were often served at weddings instead of as Valentine's Day treats. Some read "Married in white, you have chosen right" and "Married in pink, he will take to drink." Things sure have changed since the early 1900s, haven't they?

The ingredients for Sweethearts Conversation Hearts are relatively simple

When you bite into a conversation heart (you know, if you're one of the people who decide to eat them), it's basically like a little sugar bomb. They're a little crunchy, a little chewy, and a little chalky. But, what exactly are they made of? You may be surprised to find out that the ingredients are pretty simple — it's basically sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, flavors, gums and colors. Of course, it gets a little more complicated if you want specifics.

As of 2018, before Necco's factory shut down, a package of hearts listed a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, glycerin, gelatin, tragacanth gum, xanthan gum, Arabic gum, citrus acid, artificial and natural flavors, and artificial colors. The combination of sugar, corn syrup, glycerin, and gelatin gave the hearts their chewy center that became a bit crunchy once dried. The xanthan gum incorporated acts as a thickener and binder for the product. And of course, you can't imagine those pastel colors are natural, so the artificial coloring is necessary.

With Spangler's release of their 2020 version of the hearts, saying they're taking it back to the original recipe, the ingredients may be even simpler.

The production process for Sweethearts Conversation Hearts is fairly straightforward

As you might imagine, the technology in the early 1900s for candy making wasn't terribly advanced, and the Necco production process for Sweethearts Conversation Hearts remained fairly simple over those many years.

According to former marketing director for Necco, Aimee Scott, the process had been done the same way for years prior to the bankruptcy in 2018. All of the ingredients were mixed together to make a dough, and then an employee would take the dough and put it on a special machine to stretch and roll it. Next, the dough was flattened out to be prepared for stamping. The sayings on the hearts were printed using an old-fashioned printing plate with letters in red ink, and the letters could be moved around on the plate to adjust the saying. 

The conversation hearts were never baked, but to achieve the hard candy texture we all know and love, they were sent to rooms filled with drying racks, and they were left to sit and dry for two to three days. Once dried, they were jumbled together in a piece of equipment called a "rocket launcher," so that each box is perfectly mixed with an assortment of colors and sayings.

There's no way to know if Spangler is using the exact same process, but since they kept much of the same equipment, chances are good that it's at least pretty similar.

Brach's makes Conversation Hearts, too

After so much buzz around conversation hearts being unavailable for Valentine's Day 2019, Brach's stepped in to remind consumers they too produce those cute little hearts. That's right, Necco wasn't the only maker in the game, and Brach's has been producing their version since the 1960s. Yet with the continuity of the Necco brand, and the uproar of production being halted, consumers seemed to have forgotten that the product the two companies produce is really pretty much the same — with just a few key differences.

According to Food and Wine, the Brach's version does come in many flavors, including banana, orange, cherry, and grape, just like Sweethearts Conversation Hearts did, but The New York Times says that the Brach's version of conversation hearts are a bit thinner than their counterpart, as well as softer. 

In addition, one of the major differences easily seen between the two is that Brach's little hearts aren't stamped like the Sweethearts brand — they're laser printed. And, Brach's includes other phrases that Sweethearts wasn't using, including a few more modern phrases thanks to the influence of cell phone technology and social media like "Adorbz" and "TTYL." These hearts come in multiple package sizes, including cute little bags all the way up to 30-ounce bags. 

Sweethearts Conversation Hearts have been used for marriage proposals

Incorporating conversation hearts into sweet gestures has been a tradition for many, whether it's asking someone on a date or giving a gift to a friend. But what about taking it one step further to a marriage proposal? One of the oldest sayings on Sweetheart Conversation Hearts is "Marry Me" and people have certainly incorporated the sweet treat into sweet proposals.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, a man in Michigan wanted to utilize the hearts to propose to his girlfriend in 2004, but he simply couldn't find enough of the printed message. He bought several bags, only to find a few "Marry Me" hearts in each bag, so he ended up writing Necco to ask for more, and they were kind enough to send some his way. And he certainly isn't the only one with that idea.

In a 2011 interview with TIME, Marketing Director for Necco at the time, Aimee Scott, said that the company would receive special requests for entire bags of "Marry Me" hearts for proposals. And of course, the company obliged. Here's to hoping that sweet company tradition will live on, even under the new owners.