Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
In the 1800s, candy helped make Boston an industrial powerhouse. Candy hearts have been a lasting legacy of that era, though their future is less certain.
In anticipation of Valentine’s Day this year, research scientist Janelle Shane fed hundreds of messages printed on classic Conversation Hearts to a neural network learning algorithm. After reading a series of “Be Mine”s and “Call Me”s, the bot spit out its own imitations. Some were romantic-adjacent: “Love Bun,” “My My,” and the more meta, “Love Bot.” Others veered into the absurd: “Sweet Meat,” “Time Hug,” “Stank Love.” The messages weren’t very flirty, even if they were extremely 2019.
But they followed a tradition that dates back to the 1860s—one that lapsed for the first time this year, when the manufacturer of the more tangible, classic Sweetheart candies, the New England Confectionary Company, shut down in July.
Better known as Necco, the company was once the oldest continuously operating candy business in the country, and a Massachusetts staple. Its demise was as abrupt as its rise: Necco filed for bankruptcy in early 2018. In May, it was sold to an investment company. By July, it had shuttered its doors for good. And this February, without Necco to manufacture new ones, Sweethearts were in short supply.
Allegedly, they’ll be reborn again next year. Sweethearts, like most of Necco candy brands, were auctioned off to different companies after the confectioner folded. Spangler, the Ohio-based manufacturer behind Dum-Dums, bought the company’s famous Necco wafers and the Sweethearts, and has said they’ll start producing the latter in time to sell them during 2020’s Valentine’s celebrations.
(A press release outlining that timeline was recently removed from the site, replaced with a simpler graphic of three candy hearts: “Miss U 2,” “Wait 4 Me,” and “Back Soon.”)
Because of the amicable splintering, the story of the Necco factory’s closing isn’t a particularly sad one, says Jim Greenberg, the co-president of the candy manufacturing machinery company Union Standard Equipment, and one of the people who helped auction off Necco’s parts. “It’s not the death of a company, it’s a rebirth of the brands,” he said.
But examining Necco’s rise and fall traces the country’s changing cultural relationship to candy—and reveals a forgotten local history. Before biotech, candy was one of Boston’s largest industries.
The first chocolate manufacturing mill opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1765; and the first candy commercially sold in the United States was the Gibraltar rock, which was made in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1806.
But Boston’s industry was really bolstered in the mid-1800s by the Triangle Trade, which trafficked in sugar and molasses. To expand the railroad, the city filled in a marshy plot of land in Cambridge, where factories and people settled quickly. Immigrant labor was cheap and available. “This all came together and created this industrial hub,” said Emily Gonzalez, an archivist at the Cambridge Historical Commission.
Out of that perfect storm came Oliver, Silas, and Daniel Chase. Together, they owned an apothecary, where they sold many sugar-based medicines. Back then, Susan Benjamin wrote in her candy history book Sweet As Sin, “[s]ugar was medicinal in its own right, often as a sore throat remedy, and was used to disguise the flavors of other medicines.” Oliver Chase’s lozenges were popular, but were slow to produce. So in 1847, Oliver Chase invented the lozenge cutter, which cranked out sugar-dough in uniform sizes. It was the first American candy-making machine—and from it, the famous Necco wafer was born, nicknamed “the Hub wafer,” after Boston’s own nickname, “The Hub.” (The machine also helped Necco survive the polio epidemic decades later, Benjamin says: People believed the virus spread by hand, but Necco was able to say its factory was hands-free.)
Then came the Sweetheart. 1800s-style “conversation candies” were already popular in Massachusetts, but they looked—and sounded—dramatically different than the tiny pastel hearts in grocery stores now.
“Text Me” obviously wasn’t a thing then, and nobody asked their lover to “Fax Me.” The 19th century versions weren’t even heart-shaped. Instead, the small crisp candies—first called “cockles”—were made of sugar and flour and shaped like scallop shells. Candy-makers filled them with flimsy colored papers bearing “foreboding prophesies”—things like, “Married in satin, love will not be lasting; married in pink, he will take to drink.” Temperance-inspired messages were common: “Drink is the Ruin of Man,” they read; or “Sobriety is the way to riches.”
That’s until Daniel Chase invented a new machine to print messages directly on candy in the 1860s. He was a shy boy, according to a candy history book in the Cambridge Historical Commission’s archive, A Century of Candymaking, 1847-1947, which may have explained his interest in making a candy that could say what he couldn’t. With him in charge, quippier messages appeared, too, like “Did You Wink,” “O You Kid,” and “Don’t Bother Me.” He called his invention “motto lozenges.”
And with these two key candies, the brothers had arrived. By 1901, Oliver, Silas, and Daniel’s apothecary had morphed into a candy store, Chase Company, which joined forces with two other local candy-makers to become the New England Confectionary Company. And together, they set about spreading their durable and sweet wares nationwide.
Legend has it that Necco sent wafers to Union soldiers, who’d munch them in the field during the Civil War. One explorer lugged the treats on an Arctic Exploration in 1913; another, Admiral Byrd, took two and a half tons to the South Pole in the 1930s. World War II troops received wafers on their European deployments.
Sweethearts, too, became a staple. “Behind a slate in school and later on the horsehair sofa, the motto lozenges were a great boon to a shy young man,” reads a chapter on 1866 in A Century of Candymaking. The heart shape emerged in 1902, the same year Necco became the largest factory exclusively producing candy in the nation, according to Sweet As Sin.
As Necco grew, it also put down roots in Cambridge, moving out of South Boston into a factory on Massachusetts Avenue in 1927—the largest dedicated to candy-making in the world at the time, according to the Cambridge Historical Society.
“By 1928, candy was Cambridge’s second-largest industry, behind soap,” said Gonzalez. “There were about 26 to 32 candy factories around that time. It peaked around 1946, when there were 66 candy companies in the directory for this area.”
But the halcyon days had to end. Gradually, says Greenberg, the candy industry changed. In the 1960s, “Necco’s consumer base was dying on a daily basis,” Greenberg said. “Not drifting off, just dying. Every decade they’d lose hundreds of thousands of consumers.”
The way people bought candy changed, too. “It’s an interesting look at the way the country has morphed socially,” he said. In the old days, “kids would go out on their own. They were given a nickel, and they bought their own candy.” Necco didn’t have to market to kids—they’d wander into candy shops and peruse the options themselves. “Now you wouldn’t let a 5-year-old out of their sight,” said Greenberg. “The [marketing] target isn’t the kid; it’s the mom.”
While the appetite grew for gummy and sour candies, Necco was stuck selling candy “prototypical of the bygone days,” Greenberg said, including Mary Janes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Clark Bars. “They were making candy buttons on paper; chocolate covered almonds—low-end products.”
Meanwhile, candy heart messages got shorter, more saccharine, and way more popular. “Be Mine” and “First Kiss" eclipsed “Excuse Me Sir.” Later, hashtags and “<3”s entered the scene. By 2011, Necco said it was producing 10 and 14 million pounds of conversation candies a year. In 2017 and 2018, CandyStore.com deemed the candies the top Valentine’s seller in the country.
But it wasn’t enough to support the company. After bleeding money for decades, Necco decided to evacuate Cambridge. Greenberg says Necco had made a deal with the city and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to receive tax abatements for the building, but the sunset period was nearing its end in 2004. “If they didn’t get out of that building, they’d owe $25 million in taxes,” Greenberg said.
So Necco, which employed more than 700 workers at the time, cleared out of its Massachusetts Avenue site, and the Novartis Biomedical Research factory moved in. For years, a water tower painted to resemble a Necco wafer roll topped the Cambridge building. Under Novartis, a double-helix replaced it.
The candy factory moved to an 830,000-square-foot building in Revere, just a few miles north of downtown Boston. It wasn’t a devastating blow for employment in the city, says Greenberg, because by then other industries had emerged as larger players than candy. But Gonzalez says she still meets people who come to the Cambridge Historical Commission, saying their grandparents or great-grandparents used to work in the Cambridge factory.
In Revere, Necco soon became the largest employer, with about 500 employees in 2011. But its troubles followed it. Documents released in 2016 revealed that Necco had failed to meet the employment goals of its tax increment financing agreement with the city, employing only 30 Revere residents out of a total workforce of 483, according to the Revere Journal.
“Unfortunately this City Council cannot mandate prosperity,” Councillor Dan Rizzo told the Revere Journal in 2011. “Necco is just one company caught up in the economic downturn.”
Rumors of layoffs swirled in March 2018. In May, the company was sold at an emergency auction; and by July, the plant had shut down completely, leaving the 230 employees that remained out of work. Now, the company is embroiled in a lawsuit from former employees that say they were laid off without proper notice.
So Necco’s relationship with Massachusetts, once sweet, has soured—but its demise seems to have reinvigorated its fan base. CandyStore.com recalls the “Great Necco Wafer Panic” of 2018, when sales of wafers spiked 150 percent after the Boston Globe first reported the news that the company could be closing in as soon as 60 days.
If, like Daniel Chase, you need conversation hearts to communicate your feelings this Valentine’s Day, you can still buy the similar brand Brach’s at grocery stores, which are “thinner and softer” than Necco’s models are. (“It just isn’t the same!” Lisa A. Pake, a lawyer in St. Louis, told the New York Times.)
But perhaps sending a stilted virtual message filtered through a neural-network generator is actually a more fitting evolution of Chase’s brand. Try: “You Are Babe.”