Say It Sweetly

We’ve come a long way from “Be Mine” to this year’s crop of candy heart sayings: “Te Amo,” “BFF,” “Hottie” and “Girl Power.” The question is, how did these hard little nuggets of social commentary originate and remain the most popular Valentine’s Day staple since 1902?

 

NECCO Sweethearts®, as they’re officially called, are another by-product of the Industrial Revolution. NECCO founder Oliver Chase invented a machine that would output wafers made from sugar, corn syrup and gelatin. It was his brother, Daniel, who first created the heart-and-snappy-saying version after the turn of the century.

It’s a bit of a mystery why this candy, developed to cash in on the “lozenge” craze after the Civil War, outstrips chocolate in Valentine’s Day sales year after year. Let’s face it, the original candy was, well, meh. Until 2010, that is, when NECCO introduced a softer version with more intense flavors and natural ingredients. Not so fast, NECCO. The reformulated version soon met the same fate as “new” Coke. In 2011, the company brought back the old familiar pastel molar breakers—artificial flavoring and coloring included.

So, it must be the clever, not the flavor, that we love. Not to mention the candy’s usefulness in the romance department.

According to the 1910-11 edition of Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science, “Partners for the evening were found by means of candy ‘motto’ hearts. These were broken in two, and each young lady was given a piece, but the men were obliged to hunt for theirs. As they were carefully hidden, this took some length of time and proved an excellent ‘ice breaker.’ The silly mottoes were read with laughter as the couples chose their tables.”

Now that’s quaint. (And slightly less provocative than today’s trend toward texting NSFW selfies.)

So, how else has this fairly bland, pastel pastille entered our cultural zeitgeist?

  • In the 1908 book Anne of Green Gables, Gilbert attempts to give a pink candy heart with the words “You Are Sweet” to Anne, who promptly grinds it under her heel.
  • Mickey Mouse used Sweethearts to seduce Minnie in the 1934 short, Mickey’s Steamroller
  • In the 2004 Arrested Development episode, “Marta Complex,” George Michael doggedly digs through a bowl of candy hearts until he finds just the right one.
  • And last but not least, as an homage to our own Tom Buonincontro, we must include The Simpson’s episode, “I Love Lisa,” in which Bart designs his own insulting candy hearts. His crowning achievement? “U Stink.”

There are many more examples of Sweethearts in our culture. Given their iconic stature, we think it would be great if the conversation extended beyond Valentine’s Day and conveyed more complex thoughts and emotions. Think of the possibilities in an election year such as this. Or how married couples could use them in lieu of nagging—“Seat down, please!” In the workplace, you could keep a bowl of them branded with your particular strengths—“Team Player.”

Sweethearts, when you think about it, were really an insanely smart product idea that might even be considered a precursor to social networking. There’s no doubt about it, the candy’s popularity seems to never wane. In fact, approximately 2 billion Sweethearts are sold every year over the course of six weeks. To that, the only thing we can say is:

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