I Love U, Be Mine: Billions of tiny candy hearts this season say it all

February 10, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Once upon a Valentine's Day, in the fourth grade of St. Rose of Lima Elementary School in York, Pa., Edward, 9, opened his clenched, sweaty fist and shyly presented his classmate Patricia with a small pale-yellow, heart-shaped candy imprinted with the plea "Be Mine."

Much to Edward's trembling surprise, Patricia reached into her pencil box, removed a similarly shaped candy, this one pale green, and thrust it at the eager lad. Its message: Goodbye. Patricia then flashed her braces, popped Edward's offering into her mouth, chomped it to bits and with a saucy toss of her pigtails went on her way, leaving her admirer with a broken heart of his own.

Over the years Edward has surely received far more encouraging, happier messages on other pastel-colored candy hearts. After all, some 10 billion little hearts are produced each year by two companies, for sale only from January to Valentine's Day.

The biggest producer, the New England Confectionery Co., of Cambridge, Mass., will make more than eight billion hearts this year. The company dates back to 1847, when one Oliver P. Chase voyaged from England to the United States, where he began making the pastel-colored candies that became known as Necco Wafers. They were, says Walter Marshall, Necco's special projects manager, the first commercial machine-made candy.

In 1902, someone at Necco came up with the idea of heart-shaped messages called Tiny Conversation Hearts. The original sentiments -- including Be Good, Be True, Be

Mine, Why Not, I Love U, Say Yes, Sweet Talk, My Man -- are still used. Oh Boy and Kiss Me were eliminated when they offended some spoilsports.

"We try to stay middle-of-the-road," Mr. Marshall says. "Not too trendy, not too naughty." You Are Gay disappeared when someone realized its meaning had changed a bit since the early 1900s. There are no board meetings to decide such matters, Mr. Marshall says.

The other large producer, E. J. Brach Inc., in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., which dates back to 1904, began making its hearts around 1930.

This year's 2.2 billion Small Conversation Hearts are enough, says a romantic company spokesman, to stretch from Loveland, Colo., to Honey Pot Glen, Conn., 13 times. Brach uses 62 sayings, including oldies like Oh U Kid, And How, Cool Kid, U-R- (NU)1, My Pet, Yoo-Hoo, Cute Dish, Cool, Crazy, Dream Girl, Dig Me, Far Out and Gotcha.

At Brach, love may be a many-splendored thing but luv is not: The three-letter version was recently erased as outdated. New additions are plentiful: Heartthrob, Dream Girl, You Flirt, Don't Tell, My Star, Slick Chick, I'll Wait, Not Now.

For Rainbow Reitz, who recently opened a variety store in Greenwich Village, Necco's Tiny Conversation Hearts have been a best seller since she displayed them two weeks ago (a 1 3/8 -ounce box is 35 cents). "People break out in smiles when they spot them," she says. "They buy a few boxes and say, 'Oh, I remember those.' "

"Imagine," Ms. Reitz remarks in amazement. "The company dates back to the California gold rush."

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