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Sweet Talk: The Chalky Anthropology of Candy Hearts

The chatty confections, with their LOLs and their IM MEs, aren't just Valentine's Day novelties. They're also cultural artifacts.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

They make wordless conversation hearts now. A smiley face—a mixture, if you want to be technical about it, between an emoticon and an emoji—is one of the new messages gracing the 2015 incarnations of the pastel “candies” that are candies in only the strictest of senses. Some of this year's other newbie notes: “TE AMO,” “BFF,” “GIRL POWER,” “LUV 2 DANCE,” “JE T’AIME,” and the puntastic “PUGS AND KITTENS.” Oh, and there’s also a mustache. Which is, I suppose, its own kind of message.

Candy hearts, technically called “Sweethearts” but more commonly referred to as “conversation hearts,” are egregiously mis-nicknamed: The things aren’t about conversation so much as the lack of it. You may encounter them strewn, semi-ironically, among the booze bottles at a Valentine’s Day party. Or packed into jaunty bundles of pink cellophane at a dutiful office lunch. As gifts—and who, when we’re being honest about it, would really buy these desiccated little foodstuffs for themselves?—their recipients tend to be the people who fall into the expansive category of the familiar stranger: the woman who works a few cubes over, the guy who tutors your kids. Candy hearts, as gestures, hit that, er, sweet spot between intimacy and the lack of it. They are, both despite and because of their “BE MINE” messaging, about knowing someone without really knowing them. Woe to the person who looks at a box of the things and thinks, “The ‘I LUV U’ heart! Yes! That is how I’m gonna tell him how I feel.”

So, LOL. But also: YAY. Because while conversation hearts, as one-to-one communication, are decidedly lacking, they are, as mass communication, weirdly revealing. Pretty much any cultural product—magazines, the wedding pages, movies, music, sitcoms, fashion—will double as a kind of anthropological artifact, and I am being only the tiniest bit facetious when I say that candy hearts are, 2 BE SURE, among those products. You can understand something about American culture by knowing that Necco, which makes the candies, now offers sugar-free versions of them. Or that the company recently introduced En Español Sweethearts. Or that, in early 2013, it began offering customized messages on its hearts. Or that it continually rejects customer requests for hearts with messages like “GET A PRE-NUP” and “CALL MY LAWYER.”

Conversation hearts once offered a message declaring, “You Are Gay." They recently retired the once-popular “Dig Me.” This year has brought, through its be-chalked pictograms, not only a kind of meta-textual communication to the world of the conversation heart; it also, notably, brings the end of messages like “OCCUPY MY HEART” (whoa, political!), “LOVE ME” (whoa, needy!), “SHINE BRIGHT” (too demanding), “TWEET” (too commercial), and “U R Hot” (self-explanatory). Still included in Necco’s cadre of coronaried communications, however, are messages that extend to us from 1902, when the candies were first made in a factory: "PUPPY LOVE," "SWEET LOVE," "LOVE ME,” "KISS ME," and, of course, the tried-and-true "BE MINE."

The new crop of hearts for 2015 includes mustaches, emoji, and shout-outs to "GIRL POWER." (Necco)

All of that—the ebb and flow of sentiment, romantic and otherwise—says something about what it means to be an American in 2015. And it says something about what it’s meant to be an American in previous years, as well. Arthur Miller said that a newspaper is a nation talking to itself; but—SWEET TALK, literally—you could say the same about candy hearts. Taken together, over time, stamped out in a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin, the candies record where we’ve been, and hint at where we’re going.

Necco is the oldest candy company in the U.S. In the mid-1800s, Oliver Chase invented a machine that was able to cut candy lozenges and pulverized sugar into varying shapes—popular ones at the time were things like horseshoes and baseballs and shells. Back then, a popular competitor candy resembled today’s fortune cookies: Scallop-shaped, they contained strips of colored paper with messages written on them. In the 1860s, his brother, Daniel, devised a machine that would stamp messages onto those candies using red vegetable dye.

The brothers’ dual inventions meant that the messages could be conveyed without paper; the candies—with long messages scrolled on their exteriors—soon became popular. Particularly at weddings, where they offered such of-the-time advice as “Married in Pink, he’ll take to drink” and “Married in White, you have chosen right.” (They also offered some strange requests—like, for example, "Please send a lock of your hair by return mail.") By the early 1900s, the variety of shapes Necco had initially offered in its candies gave way to one: hearts. And as the candies grew in popularity, their messages grew shorter in length—many of them resembling the ones we know today. The denizens of the early 20th century used these tracts of sugary real estate to convey many of the same messages we do in the 21st: “BE MINE.” “MISS YOU.” “LOVE U.”

In the 1990s, as the economy boomed and the Internet emerged, Necco decided to update some of the hearts’ messages, with a particular focus on how young people communicate. “CALL ME,” “EMAIL ME,” and “FAX ME” rose and then were retired. To add order to the whole thing, Necco began offering themes for each year. 2005 was sports (“#1 FAN,” “ALL-STAR,” “FIT FOR LOVE”), 2006 was home (“SWEET HOME,” “GO HOME,” “HOUSE PARTY”), 2007 was animals, (“URA TIGER,” “COOL CAT,” “PUPPY LOVE”), 2008 was weather (“HEAT WAVE,” “MELT MY HEART,” “CLOUD NINE”), 2009 was food (“SUGAR PIE,” “TABLE 4 2,” “SPICE IT UP”), and so on. A few years ago, because of Twilight, Necco began making vampiric-themed messages: “DAZZLE,” “LIVE 4 EVER,” and the somewhat confusing “BITE ME.”

The emergence of texting, obviously, has been a boon to the heart-message industry. (When Necco began crowdsourcing suggestions for new messages in 2010, it got more than 10,000 submissions and “Text Me” was among the top three most-popular.) But in some sense, the hearts anticipated texting’s particular demands and affordances as a communications platform. Space-constrained, those tiny little expanses of sugar and gum forced us to figure out how to express ourselves with maximum economy. They forecast IM-speak. They hinted at the new language of emojis, with all its clarities and ambiguities of expression. They showed us where we are, before we got here. THX, little guys. And LOL.