By now they're probably a red dot special atK-mart or in the sale bin at CVS, anotherpost-season candy that didn't come close toselling out. Each year, confectioners produce 10billion Valentine's Day conversation hearts:enough to cross the continent five times with suchsweet nothings as LUV YA, BE TRUE, KISS ME and MYMAN. The taste is nauseatingly sweet in a stalesort of way, and the parallels with colored chalkabound. Nonetheless, the candy heart is one ofthose holiday staples that persists. After all,the idea is kind of cute, and they fit socomfortably inside the envelope of a Donald Duckor Snoopy valentine that you had to distribute tothe entire second grade class. And what better wayis there to tell that special someone that I DIGYOU?
Though each American youth has surely consumedhundreds of conversation hearts before graduation,few Harvard students realize that they live rightdown the street from the inventor and manufacturerof eighty percent of the Valentine's Daycandy--the New England Confectionery Company(Necco).
Never heard of it? Ask your parents. Althoughthe company is expanding and doing better thanever, Necco hit its name-recognition peak sometimearound when our parents were developing theirfirst crushes. Every good American kid wasfamiliar with the Necco wafer; priests placed thethin pastel discs on the tongues of childrenpracticing communion. Byrd brought the wafers tothe South Pole, and Macmillan took packages ofthem on his trip to the Arctic. Necco'shoneycomb/peanut Bolster Bar preceded the BartSimpson-famed Butterfinger. Upon the 1938launching of the Skybar, "a candy box in a bar,"skywriters and low-flying planes with trailingbanner-advertisements circled most of theNortheast. Necco also erected an enormous Skybarbillboard in Times Square, complete with enoughflashing lights to rival the Coke sign. DuringWorld War II, energy restrictions prevented thelighting of the billboard, and it made New YorkTimes headlines the day it was turned back on.
But Necco no longer advertises to the generalpublic; it only places ads in trade journals. "Wedon't try to sell to the consumer," a Neccospokesman explains. "What we have to do is sellthe buyers--the Walmarts and the K-marts--that'sour target. If we can get it on the shelf, then itwill sell. But you've got to get it on the shelf.That's our goal; that's our advertising." Yet inthe TV-centric age of satisfying Snickers bars,pleasure-doubling Doublemint gum and rabbit-laidCadbury Cream Eggs, Necco is taking a risk. It'srelying on its long-standing and respectablereputation in the confectionery world to keep theshelves stocked and the candy moving.
To some extent, it's working. The Necco waferholds its place in the top ten non-chocolatecandies, and its newly acquired Mary Janes, apeanut butter and caramel taffy, occupies arelatively secure niche in the penny candyindustry. But a small, informal poll of Harvardstudents indicates that despite the university ofthe candy heart, only a minority have even heardof the Necco company or its once-famous wafers,referred to by one company official as "the familyjewels."
A CANDY OASIS
Despite having passed the monolith countlesstimes, we never noticed the Necco factory until aflat bike tire brought us to the repair shopacross the street. The building dates back to 1927and radiates an aura of factory functionalityyou'd expect in a 1950's New England manufacturingtown that was once the ideal of American industry.
At first we felt like Roald Dahl's Charlie,peering through the wrought-iron fence of WillyWonka's Chocolate Factory and dreaming of what laybehind its imposing walls. During the half-hour wewaited at the bike store, no one entered or leftthe building. From the partial view we had intothe upper floor windows, we could discern nomovements inside.