THEY are an icon of Valentine's Day: Little colored candy hearts stamped with a heartfelt message.
For the past 80 years, the New England Confectionery Company (Necco) has been churning out these "conversation hearts" from its factory here in Cambridge, Mass.
"This was once the candy mecca of the world," says Walter Marshall, marketing and special projects manager for Necco. "Now it's shifted to the Midwest where they have better access to raw materials such as beet sugar and corn syrup."
Although Necco has encountered some competition in the conversation-hearts category over the years, the company was the first to manufacture the candy.
The heart-shaped sweets evolved from the small, round Necco wafer, which has been a staple of the company since it was founded in 1847.
Between 1915 and 1920, "somebody came up with the idea to create a heart and stamp the candy" with a saying, says Mr. Marshall. "Then everybody started copying it."
Necco now produces about 80 percent of all the conversation hearts sold, under several labels.
Marshall estimates that the company sells 1.7 billion pieces of the candy each year. "If you line them up back-to-back, they would stretch from Boston to San Francisco and back to New York," he says. "We'd have to sell more to finish the trip back to Boston."
As it is, the Necco factory punches out two different sizes of hearts nearly every month of the year to keep up with the Valentine's Day demand.
"All this is geared around a one-day holiday," Marshall says. "The rest of the world doesn't know anything about Valentine's Day. It's a unique holiday to the United States."
The basic ingredients in conversation hearts are sugar, corn syrup, and flavoring.
The candy is made in six different flavors: orange, grape, lime, pineapple, cherry, and lemon. But 10-year-old Kristin Plemmons of San Antonio says "they all taste the same" to her.
Making the hearts is a fairly simple process based on the Necco wafer recipe, Marshall says. The raw ingredients are cooked in a kettle to form the basic paste, which goes through rollers to create a "blanket." A machine then punches out the hearts and stamps the sayings before returning the excess candy back into the depositer for rerolling. Finally, the hearts are dried and packaged. The factory can produce up to 30,000 pounds of hearts a day.
"The shelf life under normal conditions is ... forever," Marshall says of the candy. "It's like a bowl of sugar on your table."
Almost everybody enjoys the bite-size nibbles. "We used to have a horse that loved 'em," says John Berchelmann, a dentist in San Antonio. "He didn't like red hots, but he loved those hearts."
This Valentine's Day, like every year for decades, schoolchildren will exchange millions of conversation hearts along with their valentines.
"I think I get them every Valentine's Day," says eight-year-old Nancye Doles Flasch. "But mostly I give them out with my Valentine's Day cards. I tape them on."
Many of these sweet hearts never melt in anyone's mouth; they are often used as decoration.
Yet "whether they eat them or throw them at each other, there's more sold now than ever," Marshall says.
"First-graders like them because they are just learning to read the words in the sayings," says Shirley Berchelmann, a teacher who has received her share of conversation hearts from students over the years.
Eleven-year-old Elissa Berchelmann says she likes the hearts better than chocolate for Valentine's Day. "You should always read them before you eat them, and don't give a `Be Mine' heart to a boy," she advises.
But Elissa's eight-year-old sister, Lindsay, has a different philosophy: "I just eat them," she says.
Conversation hearts are often used as the currency in early flirtations. "It's a little hint if you like someone," says 10-year-old Jessica Bass.
Elissa eats the ones that say "I Love You." Seven-year-old Blake Plemmons gives the kind that say, "You're cool" to boys at school. "I like it when it says `Kiss Me,' " Blake says. "Then it's for my mom or my sister."
Altogether, there are more than 100 sayings for the small hearts and 50 to 60 sayings for the large hearts. "Nobody knows them all, you couldn't," Marshall says.
In the past, Necco has filled some special orders for its candy hearts. George Bush ordered a batch for the 1988 presidential campaign; they were stamped with "Bush '88."
It's a trick to come up with snappy sayings for such a tiny space. The small hearts allow for two rows of four letters and the larger hearts can hold up to six letters in two rows.
"We don't come up with new sayings every year," Marshall says. "From time to time we update them, but we leave the staples alone. `Be Mine' and `Kiss Me' - those are good forever."