Of the many siblings in the seasonal candy family, candy corn is the quirky breakout star. The jelly bean is the reliable one. The candy cane is perpetually cheerful.
But the conversation heart? It’s always been emotional and a bit needy.
The chalky little treats require annual tending. Months before each Valentine’s Day, candy companies begin pondering new messages and editing out the dated ones. (Looking at you, “On Fleek.”) The dozen or so fresh sayings must be both current and inoffensive, charming and clever. And they can’t overshadow classic expressions of romantic love, like “Kiss Me,” that were first inscribed in 1902 by the Boston company that had invented the Necco Wafer.
After more than a century of expressing emotion in the vernacular of the moment — “Call Me” became “Fax Me” became “Page Me” became “Email Me” became “Text Me” — the candy heart has become something of a barometer. If the former Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams can stage her comeback with a song about candy corn, maybe the nation can gauge the state of love through its candy hearts.
For 2023, the Spangler Candy Company — one of two manufacturers that dominate the conversation-heart market — has chosen an animal theme for its Sweethearts line. Phrases like “Big Dog,” “Love Birds” and “Purr Fect” are a nod to all the people who have acquired pets during the pandemic.
Brach’s candy hearts use laser printing instead of the stamping method that has been a hallmark of the Sweethearts brand since they were introduced in 1902.Credit…Cole Wilson for The New York Times
Last year, as the nation was still recovering, the company introduced 16 supportive slogans like “Youda Best,” “Fear Less” and “Good Job.” The idea, the company said, was to give people a lift.
Fans of more passionate slogans may not have been pleased, but Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and the author of six books on love, sex and the brain, said the less amorous messages marked a cultural turning point.
“These candy hearts are yet another expression of this huge societal change since the pandemic,” she said. “It’s this theme of attachment. Much of the world is going to settle down, and along with that they’re looking not only for romantic love but also for deep, long-term attachment.”
Valentine’s Day sweets make up only about 3 percent of candy sales, and it would be easy to dismiss conversation hearts as mere currency for grade school crushes. But about 23 percent of households buy non-chocolate candies for the holiday, including talking hearts. Millennial and Generation X households with children are the biggest fans of Valentine’s sugar candy, according to IRI, a global market research firm.
The team writing the mottoes for next year’s batch of Sweethearts has already developed a new theme aimed at that demographic sweet spot. But before we get to where the conversation is headed, it helps to know where it’s been.
The candy heart was born during the lozenge craze of the mid-1800s, when apothecaries sold medicated candies to soothe sore throats and suppress coughs. (Some included morphine and heroin, ingredients that were later dropped.)
Making lozenges by hand was time-consuming. In 1847, a Boston pharmacist named Oliver Chase invented a machine that would stamp out medicinal versions from sugar paste. Since he was working in what was then the country’s candy-manufacturing center, he shifted gears and founded what would become the New England Confectionery Company, or Necco.
Almost 20 years later, Mr. Chase’s brother began using a felt pad and red vegetable dye to stamp words onto the candy. The company cut dough into shapes like kites and baseballs, called them motto lozenges and embossed them with extended locutions like “How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate,” “Mother knows I’m out” and “Married in pink, he will take to drink.”
The hearts came along in 1902. The basic recipe — about 90 percent sugar, with a little corn syrup and glycerin — hasn’t changed much. Flavors from the period like clove and sassafras have given way to an ambiguous array of what might best be called fruit-adjacent flavors, and wintergreen.
In 2010, Necco changed the formula, softening the texture and adding new, bolder fruit flavors. Blue raspberry replaced wintergreen. Like New Coke, the rebuilt hearts bombed.
“Simply put, they’re a mess,” one candy blogger wrote. The company reworked the recipe to better resemble the original.
For decades, the Necco hearts monopolized the market, until Brach’s jumped in during the 1950s. That company tried out tropical fruit flavors and for a limited time sold plastic boats filled with hearts called Friend Ships. A line of candies called Wisecracks! End the Conversation Hearts, with slogans like “Nope” and “4 Never,” was introduced in 2021. This year, Brach’s has hearts with catchphrases from the sitcom “Friends,” like “Moo Point.”
Brach’s officials have pointed out that their candies are laser-printed, producing a cleaner look than traditional stamping, which can result in misshapen hearts and blurred letters. (A member of the Necco production crew told a writer for The Atlantic in 2013 that because P’s sometimes emerged looking like F’s, the company had stopped using phrases that started with P.)
Candy-heart lovers split into camps. “Brach’s may not be able to take credit for printing salacious messages on candy hearts, but at least they had the decency to offer texture and flavor,” said Mike Pomranz, a food writer who once argued that Sweethearts were just reshaped Necco Wafers and that Brach’s softer texture made theirs superior.
By 2019, Brach’s hearts were bigger sellers than the originals. The brand now commands 60 percent of the market for conversation hearts, which are the best-selling Valentine’s Day candy, said Katie Duffy, the vice president and general manager of seasonal candy at the Ferrara Candy Company, which owns Brach’s.
But even Brach’s loyalists bow down to the history contained in more than a century of sayings, which over time became limited to the nine letters that fit on a tiny heart — fewer if they use a W.
“The One I Love” and “I’ll See You Home,” popular in the early 1900s, fell out of fashion long ago, along with “Go Fly a Kite” and “Excuse My Dust.” The dust also gathered on “23 Skidoo” and “O! You Kid.”
“We knew those corny expressions didn’t mean a thing to moderns,” Margaret M. Kedian, the public relations director for Necco, told The Daily Boston Globe in 1950.
About that time, the company was stumped for new material, so it asked its sales staff to send back slang expressions from the road. “Going My Way” and “What Gives” had brief star turns, along with, “My Aching Back.”
By the 1980s, “Hep Cat” and “Hubba Hubba” had outlived their audience. “You’re Gay” was retired for obvious reasons.
For decades, the task of editing Necco’s 80 to 125 sayings each year fell to the candy executive Walter Marshall. He solicited suggestions and drew inspiration from the world around him, using more intuition than market research to pick the winners. He liked “You Go Girl,” which his granddaughter heard on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show. He accepted “Awesome” but rejected “Phat.”
For a few years after Mr. Marshall retired in 2000, the company picked themes that were less about love and more about, well, anything. In 2003, it pursued an education angle, with “Let’s Read” and “Wise Up.” In 2005, a banner year for New England’s professional sports teams, messages included “Be a Sport” and “Cheer Me On.” Even the weather had its moment, in 2008, with “Heat Wave” and “In a Fog.”
And on it went, some five billion little hearts a year, until Necco filed for bankruptcy in 2018. It sold its Sweethearts, Necco Wafers and Canada Mints brands for nearly $19 million to the family-owned Spangler Candy Company, an Ohio firm that also churns out Dum-Dums and orange marshmallow Circus Peanuts.
In a crushing blow to first graders everywhere, there were no boxes of Sweethearts to exchange in 2019. Spangler, which began making the hearts in Mexico, couldn’t get the equipment ready in time. But the hearts were back the following year, and the new owners wrote their first set of messages. They went with the classics: “QT Pie,” “Sweet Talk” and “UR Mine.”
Then came 2021, the year of pep talk, and this year, with its “Paw Some” pet messages.
Which brings us to plans for 2024. Spangler has hired Tombras, the ad agency, to create Sweethearts’ first TikTok and Instagram accounts and help write new sayings.
The company won’t reveal them yet, but there is a theme. Despite Spangler’s newfound digital push, 2024 will be all about IRL, said Reise Kitts, who manages the account for Tombras.
“Anyone can go online and give likes out like candy,” he said. “Why not give candy out to show someone you like them for real?”
Not everyone is cheering.
“I’ve yet to hear of a couple whose courtship started with ‘Crazy 4 U,’” said Mr. Pomranz, the food writer. “I feel like you’re better off opening with a more substantial candy like a full-size 3 Musketeers. That’s love.”
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