In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Queen Gertrude offers the now-loved sentiment “Sweets to the Sweet” – perhaps the origin of the tradition of giving candy to a loved one. The tradition continued when early American colonists made homemade candies with love notes scratched on the surface for Valentine’s Day. The New England Confectionery Company expanded upon the colonists’ idea and created the conversation heart in the mid-1800s.
In 1860, Daniel Chase, brother of NECCO founder Oliver Chase, invented a process to print messages on candies. Originally, the candies were “cockles” — small, crisp, scallop shell-shaped candy wrapped in colored paper with printed sayings. However, Sweet Hearts, which was the name used for candies with mottos inscribed directly on them, weren’t invented until 1900. Before then, the candy was cut into other fun shapes like horseshoes and baseballs. This allowed for longer sayings, such as “How long shall I have to wait? Pray be considerate” and enabled would-be lovers to send messages to each other.
As time went on, the sayings became shorter and more to the point, and the familiar heart shape was also produced. Every year, new sayings are added, with messages ranging from the traditional “be mine” to the more modern “tweet me” and emojis.
Today, conversation hearts are one of the most popular Valentine’s Day candies. People all over the country love to give them to their valentines and they are especially popular with school children.
How are conversation hearts made?
It takes a combination of machines and skilled candy makers to produce conversation hearts. Many of the machines used to make conversation hearts are the original machines or exact replicas.
Sugar, color and other ingredients are mixed together, and once the mix feels like dough, it is ready to be made into hearts. Workers pick up the dough and take it to a machine that flattens it. Another machine stamps the saying onto it, and then cuts the dough into hearts. The candy drops onto a conveyor belt that takes the conversation hearts to a dryer. Once the candy is dry, it is mixed in with other colors. Finally, the hearts are boxed and shipped.
A fun fact about conversation hearts:
- Each year, the television game show Jeopardy! includes questions about conversation hearts on its Valentine’s Day show.