For some, 2019 was a year without love. For everyone, it was a year without Sweethearts, the chalky little hearts printed with the pleas of would-be lovers. (“LOVE YOU,” “ADORE ME,” “LOL.”) I don’t think anyone really missed them, if anyone even noticed they were gone in the first place. For one thing: These are grim times, and there are bigger problems to worry about. For another thing: There are other versions of what is essentially the same candy. For yet another: They taste bad. But I will confess that I missed Sweethearts and their devastatingly meaningless messages.
Sweethearts are the best Valentine’s Day candy because they are impossible to love. You eat them when there is no better chocolate available. You treat them with the same taken-for-granted abandon you apply to faces on a dating app. You do not need to care about them, because there will always be more, even if you don’t really want them. (And you probably don’t.)
Since 1901, the New England Confectionery Company — Necco — purveyed a number of questionable but very American drugstore classics: the Necco Wafers of wartime, the taffy-centered Clark Bars of any time. And, of course, Sweethearts, the definitive capitalist icon of Valentine’s Day. Regardless of whether you have known love, you have known the nostalgia of Sweethearts, boxes upon boxes of pastel, talcumlike wafers, dried from a dough of corn syrup and sugar and thickening agents, cut into hearts and stamped with candied-ink love notes. At the original Massachusetts factory, Necco produced Sweethearts by the meticulous billions. Any dough that got misprinted was refired through machinery until only perfect pastel hearts emerged.
But two years ago, Necco closed for good. Ohio’s Spangler Candy acquired the Necco name and all of its dubious nostalgia. Sweethearts were MIA for Valentine’s Day 2019, and because of the tight time frame to get Sweethearts on shelves this Valentine’s Day, as well as the technical difficulties of moving Necco’s factory equipment to Spangler — indeed, the printer that stamped on sayings was accidentally damaged during production — the Sweethearts that have been resurrected in 2020 are rawer, messier, and better than their previous, more manicured form.
Open a pack of Sweethearts now, and the notes are as uneven as the ways in which we love. Some are effusive, blotted with red ink; some are printed tidily, with full sayings; some misprinted hearts contain only partial thoughts. Others are reticent and contain no note at all. I truly love the inconsistencies, and I hope they never get fixed.
In elementary school, I hated Valentine’s Day. I can still feel the anxiety of handing out cards to classmates. I was exceedingly shy, and also somewhat unfriendly. I saw the sweet things written on drugstore cards as a loss of agency — statements of all kinds of intimacies that I didn’t mean. I spent inordinate amounts of time fretting over which classmate deserved what card: Were the recipient and I as close as SpongeBob and Patrick inside the confines of a cardboard box (Box Buddies!)? Or were we Space Buddies, isolated against a backdrop of stars, our skinny arms reaching out to each other without ever really touching? (These were reserved for recipients I didn’t like.)
Sweethearts absolved me from these anxieties. At some point, while trailing behind my mother inside the pinkish fluorescence of a drugstore, I had the impulse to load the cart full of Sweethearts. I filled out all the TO and FROM blanks on the back of the box in red Sharpie. The next day in class, I handed out the candy instead of cards. I don’t know how much anyone liked receiving them, though I certainly liked giving them. They were gloriously generic, neatly uniform, and absolutely impersonal. They required no vulnerability from me than my name along the back of the box.
It’s true that what was printed on the hearts was strangely intimate — I saw classmates eating KISS ME and BE MINE hearts by the handful — but there are so many saccharine, red-printed sayings to a box that everyone knows you don’t mean any of them, let alone all of them. How could anybody love so casually, and so much?
Now, I might be tempted to compare myself to the actual candies — a little damaged, a little defunct, ink-blotted, and striving to be something that means more. But when I eat one, when I crack the chalky heart between my teeth and let the note melt away, I know what I knew as a grade-school girl: Any affection proffered by these hearts is beside the point. No matter what’s written on them, or how poor the printing quality is, the message that a box of Sweethearts sends will never be misunderstood: “This,” they say, “means absolutely nothing.”