Conversation hearts are heart-shaped wafer candies which are imprinted with short, sweet sayings like “I Love You” and “Be Good.” The most famous brand of conversation hearts is probably Sweethearts, made by the New England Candy Company (NECCO), which has popularized these sugary sweets for over 100 years. Conversation hearts tend to be big sellers around Valentine's day, thanks to their heart shape and love-themed sayings.
The original conversation hearts weren't hearts at all. They were candies known as cockles, formed in the shape of shells wrapped around a piece of pastel paper with a saying on it. Cockles weren't just for lovers, either; a number of different types were produced to be handed out as party favors and talked over in drawing rooms. When NECCO developed its unique lozenge cutter and candy paste in the 1800s, one of the company's founders got the bright idea of printing sayings directly on the candy.
Modern conversation hearts are made in pastel colors, with the red print being created with vegetable dye. When these candies were first introduced, they were printed on a number of shapes, including horseshoes, four leaf clovers, and baseballs, with NECCO realizing over time that hearts would be an enduring popular seller. The Sweethearts brand features a number of sayings, several of which are swapped out each year to keep things entertaining.
The texture and flavor of conversation hearts is quite distinct. Some people greatly enjoy it, while others say that these candies remind them of sugary cardboard. According to NECCO, Sweethearts are made with sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, gum, coloring, and flavoring, and it is safe to assume that imitators use a similar recipe. These candies are extremely shelf stable, as they have no ingredients to melt or go rancid, and as a result they are potentially edible for years after production, although they may start to taste stale.
You may see bowls of conversation hearts out in offices around Valentine's Day, and many companies manufacture them in small boxes to give away as gifts. In some cases, the box is a Valentine, with a sweet saying or decorative drawing which is meant to convey friendship and affection. Conversation hearts have become such a cult icon in some regions that they can be seen starring in contests which involve guessing how many conversation hearts are inside of something, and they also pop up in films and popular literature.