A Sweet Story
By Jenny McGlone
Chapel Hill, NC, United States
Known in the United States as Valentine’s Day, this holiday is celebrated around the world with unique traditions:
- In Norway, women receive anonymous love poems called Gaekkebrev, with names of secret admirers coded in dots.
- In Wales, men present intricately carved wooden spoons to their loved ones.
- In Japan, the type of chocolate signifies the closeness of the relationship.
Gifts of candy are also prominent in the US, with one particular type forming an important part of the history of the holiday: the Sweetheart conversation heart.
During the 1860s, a pair of brothers in Massachusetts began experimenting with stamping letters on lozenge-shaped candy. The sweet candy was made from a simple formula of mostly sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin. Using vegetable dyes, the Chase brothers were able to produce lengthy sayings such as “Married in white, you have chosen right.” People found them entertaining.
The success of this venture allowed the Chase brothers to launch a profitable candy-making business. In 1927, NECCO (New England Confectionery Company) opened the largest facility in the world dedicated to the production of sweets. Located at 284 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, this factory was built with several state-of-the-art features. For example, constructed of concrete instead of steel, the floors are between nine and 14 inches thick. Machinery placing 250 pounds of pressure per square foot can be loaded onto these slabs and run without creating vibrations.
Supply and Demand
NECCO needed to work all year long to meet the demand for Sweethearts during the Valentine season. Its factory operated at peak capacity from late February of each year to mid January of the next, producing 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts each day. The eight billion total yield sold out in just six weeks.
In the early 1990s, the company began an initiative to update the sayings, retiring some and adding others. “Be Mine” and “Kiss Me” are two of the originals still in rotation, but more modern options include “www.cupid” and “You Rock.” NECCO’s efforts to stay current while retaining the popularity of their product allowed them to post profits in excess of $100 million.
Despite these earnings, in 2018 NECCO went into bankruptcy. The company sold the Sweethearts recipe to Spangler Candy in Ohio. Spangler began producing them in limited quantities and ramped up to full production for Valentine’s Day 2021. All of the original colors and flavors rolled onto store shelves along with new sayings from the previous 70 years of love songs.
“AT LAST” they’re back, so we can savor our beloved “SUGAR SUGAR”!
Have a change to suggest for this story? We’d love for you to submit it!
- Weigh several cups of hearts or any other small candy. Determine the weight and number of hearts of each weighing. Now make an estimate of the number of hearts NECCO made each year.
- If the NECCO building is five stories tall, make an estimate of the total height of the building.
Social Justice Questions
- How could the candy’s messages help Valentine’s Day be more inclusive of all loving relationships?
- If the Spangler company asked you to come up with new sayings for the conversation hearts, what would you choose?
- Spangler Candy Company’s page about Sweethearts
- News story on the lack of Sweethearts in 2019
- Fun facts about conversation hearts
- History of conversation hearts
- Illustrations of Sweethearts for Valentine’s Day 2021
- Video of how Sweethearts were made in the NECCO factory
- Graphing activity for elementary students
- Measuring activity for elementary students
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