I regard Valentine’s Day as a holiday almost solely devoted to eating candy, from those questionable chocolates in the heart-shaped boxes to V-day-themed Ferrero Rocher hazelnut treats. But there is perhaps no more iconic Valentine’s Day candy than the conversation heart. These sugary candies definitely aren’t my favorite when it comes to the flavor—they’re unremarkable at best and overtly offensive at worst—but their appearance is undeniably fun. With messages like “be mine” and “cutie pie” printed in pink on the pastel-colored candies, they’ve become an essential candy to indulge on during the holiday.
But where did they even come from? Let’s dive into the history of conversation hearts, that most beloved of Valentine’s Day candies.
It all started not with candy but with medicine. Back in 1847, apothecary lozenges, which were essentially over-the-counter medicines combined with sugar to produce a more palatable cure for ailments like sore throats, were difficult to make. They required pharmacists to use a mortar and pestle to combine the ingredients, roll them out, and form them into small pills. A pharmacist in Boston named Oliver Chase didn’t want to deal with the finicky process on the regular, so he devised a machine, called a lozenge cutter, that made producing lozenges much simpler and less time-consuming.
Perhaps Chase was looking for an exit from the pharmaceutical industry, because not long after he invented the lozenge cutter, he decided to nix the medicine and just make candy instead. The company that he formed with his brother became Necco, or the New England Confectionery Company, which produced Necco wafers, which can still be purchased today.
These candies quickly became popular, and legend has it that because their chalky consistency meant they wouldn’t melt during transportation, they were sent to soldiers fighting in the Civil War. The candies would apparently often arrive with love letters from back home. Hence, the idea for conversation hearts was ostensibly born.
By the 1860s, one of Chase’s brothers had invented a machine that would allow them to print messages on the candy with the red dye that conversation hearts are still known for. Originally, the candies came in a wide variety of shapes, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the heart shape was introduced.
As times and language have changed, so have the messages printed on conversation hearts. Some of the classics, like “be mine” have stood the test of time, but these days, you’re also likely to find conversation hearts with phrases like “text me” and “ur hot.” Search online, and it’s now possible to buy risqué candy hearts featuring more adult language, and some companies will even allow you to personalize your candy hearts. They now come in a wide variety of colors and flavors from several different companies.
Ultimately, conversation hearts would join the ranks of the other holiday-themed candies that nobody really likes but all buy anyway. Like candy corn and Peeps, they’re rarely consumed outside of the holiday they’re intended to celebrate. But according to a Market Watch article published in 2019, the conversation heart brand Sweethearts produces 19 million pounds of the iconic Valentine’s Day candy each year, which seems to signify that this candy has significant staying power over a century after its introduction to the candy market.
Personally, I won’t be snacking on any conversation hearts today—the chalky consistency makes biting into them feel like nails on a chalkboard to me. However, I can’t deny that all of my valentines this year will be receiving a box of these time-tested, love-themed candies.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.