valentine's day

I Bought Black-Market Sweethearts — I Literally Could Not Give Them Away

No broken hearts over Sweethearts. Photo: Jed Egan

Candy hearts aren’t “good,” but they are sweet. They’re a pure expression of wholesome, elementary-level Valentine affection, and they are so ubiquitous that you probably just accept them as something that appear every February. But suddenly, because of the bankruptcy and ongoing business woes of Sweethearts maker Necco — which is just outside Boston — this is the first February in over a century when they won’t be made. I originally thought that this development might mark — as my mother, who has a deep and abiding love for things that are endearingly corny would say — “the end of an era,” but what I’ve come to realize now is that people might actually be happier without them.

You know Sweethearts. They are the little chalky hearts that taste like Tums and are engraved with little messages like “Be Mine,” “Call Me,” and other vague, innocuous expressions of friendship. Most of all, Sweethearts are an effective way of telling a crush “I vibe with you,” and while there are knockoffs, there is only one true type of Sweetheart. You will know a true Necco Sweetheart as soon as you try it, because it tastes the way you imagine candy used to taste before companies got good at making candy. Necco’s sugar wafers are more like a proto-candy, an idea that other people have spent the last 100 years improving, while Necco just steadfastly kept making the same thing year after year after year. (Big surprise that they went out of business!) But still: Sweethearts are as much a part of Valentine’s Day as candy corn is part of Halloween. They might not be good, but they are, for better or worse, essential.

Or so I thought. When I decided I would try to track down some black-market Sweethearts to have on hand during this year without them, I saw that maybe not everyone felt this nostalgic fondness. My first hint came when I realized I could buy a 26-pack box of black-market Sweethearts for just $4. The law of supply and demand was trying to tell me something.

I pressed on. Unwilling to let the memory of Sweethearts fade, I ordered that 26-pack off eBay, and then took to Slack to ask co-workers if they wanted any.

As it turns out, few of my co-workers were interested. “I will pass on the questionable Sweethearts,” Grub’s social media editor Andrew Leigh replied. “I never liked eating them, even when they were not only for sale illicitly.”

Thinking — hoping? — that maybe he was an outlier, I continued to casually offer the candy to colleagues, desperately hoping somebody would at least acknowledge Sweethearts’ place in the American candy canon. It did not go well. “I love sugar. Those candy hearts, not so much,” replied the Cut’s Amanda Arnold. “I will eat them. I just won’t enjoy them.” She was speaking from experience: She had found another bag in the office: “I found them in the giveaway area,” she admitted. “I thought, lol, these gross old things and then took the bag.”

The giveaway area? That’s where self-published books and “keto-friendly” snack foods go to die. These are Sweethearts! Surely I must know one Sweethearts fan, I thought. So I took my campaign to a group chat with friends. “I’d totally take one,” said my friend Altan. “I’ll always take candy,” offered Zach, which was not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Making matters worse: Almost everyone in the group chat is from New England. Only 3 people out of 11 could even be bothered to respond, one of whom — Alex — merely wrote, “Necco candy is so nasty.” When I asked my mom if she wanted some, she first deferred, by telling me my dad’s dad joke about “hermetically sealing” them, then unwittingly concurred with Alex. “They are pretty yucky but also kind of fun as along as you don’t eat them,” she answered.

My fellow New Englander and photo editor Maya Robinson was actually surprised to learn that they were even available on the digital black market.” Really? I grew up with them. I feel like they were everywhere on Valentine’s Day.” Exactly! But when I told her none of our co-workers were biting, she was less surprised, “Oh, yeah, I had some. They’re terrible.”

It’s like the demise of Sweethearts triggers some kind of anti-nostalgia in people: Everyone remembers them, but nobody misses them. In that way, Sweethearts are like the Limp Bizkit of candy. In fact, the only non-negative response I got was from Vulture’s social media editor, Clare Palo, who simply wanted more information about the hearts because she didn’t know what I was talking about: “What’s that?” she Slacked. “Who’s Necco?” I was initially surprised, though maybe it’s better this way because it means one less person to hate them  — and I figured the Sweethearts didn’t need any more rejection on this particular Valentine’s Day.

I Bought Illicit Sweethearts — and Couldn’t Give Them Away