How a Sweetheart Is Made: The Epic Industrial Odyssey of the Most Famous Valentine's Day Snack

This is the story of a little candy heart -- born in a mixer, mushed by a roller, tattooed, stamped, fed through an oven, and stuffed in a huge sack for months. Don't worry, it has a happy ending.

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Since the turn of the 20th century, more than 300 billion Sweethearts have rolled off the conveyer belts of the New England Confectionery Company near Boston. Today the company makes 4 million pounds of Sweethearts in the six weeks before Valentine's Day, with phrases like UR HOT and TEXT ME (but no longer FAX ME or LET'S READ).

Here's the ten-part journey of a candy heart from the mixer to the candy box, as told by Hugh B. Albert, production manager at NECCO (all photos courtesy of the company).

(1) GET THE INGREDIENTS: "The ingredients are sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, flavors, gums, and colors. The sugar and the corn syrup are piped in, because they are an extremely large volumes. We've got large sugar silos that hold up to 200,000 pounds of sugar, which is piped throughout the building for all of our products. The corn starch, flavors, and colors are added by hand."

(2) MIX THE 'PLAY-DOH': "What you're looking at is the mixer. We have three of these mixers. They each make 900-pound batches. The consistency I would describe as  Play-Doh. It looks and feels like Play-Doh, except it tastes a heck of a lot better. And, yes, having two kids, I've tasted both."


(3) CHUNK THE DOUGH: "Now you're looking at our orange "Play-Doh" in a 900-pound batch. An employee will chunk the dough into 50-lb blocks and they throw the paste up into a tall stainless steel hopper. That's essentially the job all day. They throw paste into hoppers."


(4) FLATTEN THE DOUGH: "This is the sheeting machine. One person stands at the top of a ladder (just to the left of this picture) and pushes the dough down through a roller. This roller flattens the dough out into a sheet."


(5) PRINT THE CUTE MESSAGES. "You can see words written on the yellow sheet of dough (it's a banana flavor). That's because we actually print the words before we cut the hearts. We paint a piece of cloth with red food dye and stamp the sheet of dough with a metal print plate with all of the sayings."


BRIEF ASIDE: MOTHER I'D LIKE TO APOLOGIZE TO. "The misprints can lead to some pretty funny stories. Our Ps sometimes look like Fs, so we can't say anything like "Pucker Up" for reasons you understand. Last year, we received a letter from a parent with a picture of a heart that was supposed to say "Smile." But because of the way the print came out -- no S, a messy E -- it ended up looking more like "MILF." Her son had no clue what that was about, so he asked his mom. She said, "I don't know what you people are doing." Anyway, we do our best to avoid things that have the Ps in them. This is the human element."

(6) CUT THE HEARTS. "The hearts are cut by this machine (again showed below). There are about 130 strokes per minute. A few years ago we were pressing about 200 stamps per minute, but we were getting more and no-prints. So I slowed it down.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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