This Valentine’s season, we’re facing a mild catastrophe: We will not be telling each other “I Love You” or “Fax Me” or “LOL” with Sweethearts conversation hearts this year. There will simply be none for sale anywhere in 2019.
As is so often the case these days, we can blame this crisis on corporate drama we had no hand in: Necco, the candy company that has been making the little pastel sugar-and-grout Valentines since the mid-19th century, was purchased by a new parent company at the end of last year and simply did not have enough time to set up the manufacturing process for its yearly 8 billion hearts.
We will not be permitted to suck down affection in the classic flavors of chalk-powder-infused cherry, banana, wintergreen, lemon, orange, and grape, and it’s all because of the shuttering of what was — by all accounts — a gorgeous and longstanding candy factory by the ocean.
The hearts will be back in 2020, but this year, there will be none.
To back up: Necco has been struggling for a long time, with profits sliding steadily south over the past 15 years. In May 2018, it was purchased at bankruptcy auction by Round Hill Investments, a Connecticut-based company that had previously purchased and buoyed dying brands like PBR, Chef Boyardee, and Hostess. Things seemed to be looking up.
Then in July, the Necco factory shuttered without warning, sending all 230 of its employees home permanently in the middle of the week and providing only a vague explanation of why.
Round Hill, apparently reconsidering the acquisition, had sold Necco to a mysterious new owner, which was never publicly named. That company sold Necco again in September, to the Ohio-based Spangler Candy Company. Spangler is best known for Dum Dum lollipops, circus peanuts, and candy canes, and CEO Kirk Vashaw announced at the time, “Sweethearts and Necco wafers are iconic brands with rich hundred-year-plus histories. These are perfect additions to our portfolio of traditional candies.”
Less pleasantly, he also announced, “There are a lot of manufacturing challenges and unanswered questions at this point, and we want to make sure these brands meet consumer expectations when they re-enter the market. We look forward to announcing the Sweethearts relaunch for the 2020 Valentine season.” Which brings us to our present dilemma.
In this year without Sweethearts, your best romance-candy options are, as People Magazine so helpfully suggests: the Brach’s knockoff of conversation hearts (so much flirtier!), the Sour Patch Kids knockoff of conversation hearts (unacceptable aesthetic), or Oreos with words on them (fine). Alternatively, you can order last year’s conversation hearts online in bulk, which isn’t as bad an idea as it sounds. A history of Necco published by Eater’s Daniela Galarza in 2015 notes that the company has always been known for candy recipes that prioritize form and function over flavor:
Necco Wafers were shipped to battlefields during the Spanish-American War and during World War I. In 1917, the U.S. government bought one entire year’s production of Necco Wafers and packed them into soldiers’ ration packs. Why Necco Wafers? Because the product is nearly indestructible: It has a two-year shelf life and it’s not subject to heat or cold.
Or as a more recent Wall Street Journal article puts it, “Necco wafers have been around since before the Civil War — and plenty of detractors would argue they taste like it, too.”
Yes, conversation hearts are a little bit of a joke, but they’re our joke. They’re a cultural shorthand for the pretty facade and ultimate disappointment of romantic conventions. They are not pleasant to eat, and yet we want them. They’ve been around for more than a century: The technology to slice wafer candy was invented by Oliver R. Chase in 1847, and his brother Daniel created a machine that could print words on candies in 1866.
Their early message wafers had text like “Married in white, you have chosen right,” and “Married in satin, love will not be lasting,” and were mostly given out at weddings, so I wouldn’t exactly call the Chase brothers a pair of feminist allies, but they did correctly latch on to the idea that romance is big money.
What you would recognize as Sweethearts conversation hearts debuted in 1901 and were available every year — until now. Nothing lasts forever! Except the dull pain of the heartbreaks you will accumulate over the course of your life. And now, here is another.