Right about now, millions of Americans (mostly men, all procrastinators) are hastily scanning the web to order flowers or secure a restaurant table, having suddenly realized that Valentine’s Day is tomorrow. Spending for the occasion is up this year, according to data from the National Retail Federation, to $19.6 billion—about as much profit as AT&T made in its fourth quarter; about as much as the Senate is budgeting for national infrastructure improvements. In other words: That’s a lot of flowers and a lot of dinners.
It is also, of course, a lot of chocolate—much of it in the form of those inescapable heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. You know the ones: the $9.99 pharmacy grab-and-go’s from Russell Stover and Whitman’s, or slightly more expensive varieties from the likes of Ghirardelli and Godiva. Romeos of the Western world have been giving heart-shaped boxes of chocolates since 1861, when British cocoa scion Richard Cadbury first produced them. Alas, he also failed to patent them, which is why so many brands continue to stamp them out at this time of year. According to one recent statistic, 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate find their way into our paramours’ hands each year.
But while the heart shape itself is unlikely to go out of style for cupid’s holiday, American shoppers appear to be falling out of love, ever so slightly, with the box of chocolates in that shape. Last year, online sweets retailer CandyStore.com conducted a survey that must have broken chocolate brands’ hearts: For the first time, those specialty boxes were no longer the most popular candy for Valentine’s Day.
The new victor? Conversation hearts—better known by the brand name Sweethearts.
According to CandyStore’s figures, while heart-shaped boxes of chocolate make up 9.6 percent of Valentine’s Day candy purchases, conversation hearts account for 10.2 percent. It’s a tiny margin, but with $1.8 billion spent on candy alone, the difference is still significant.
What’s less certain is why. It’s not that conversation hearts are that much newer an idea than boxes of chocolate. The New England Candy Company (better known as Necco), maker of Sweethearts, got its start in 1847. It first produced Necco Wafers, half-dollar-shaped candies made from a hardened sugar dough. The company used the same dough to make Cockles, candy fortune cookies with snippets of wisdom printed on colored paper and tucked inside. In 1866, when Oliver Chase (son of the founder) invented a process by which the sayings could be printed with food coloring directly onto the dough, Sweethearts were born, gradually shrinking in size until, in 1902, they assumed the dimensions they have today.