Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: 50 years later, candy hearts still taste the same


Valentine's Day just occurred, and the celebratory day brought back fond memories of being in grade school in Pittsfield in the 1950s.

Our teachers made the holiday special by having classrooms make and decorate a big box with a slot to slip in cards. During the week before February, each youngster's parents would buy a packet of small cards with cute figures and basic greetings for the holiday.

Teachers encouraged parents to have enough cards for each child in the class so that no one felt slighted. Usually we printed our name on each card until mastering cursive (unknown to many kids today) and the same with classmate's names on the envelope or card.

For best friends in other classes, we would put a card in their classroom boxes as well. I always picked the prettiest card for a female classmate that I thought was especially cute. (As a pre-teen, I really think I favored the girls with long curly hair.) Valentine's Day would come and we'd have a classroom party replete with soda, parent-baked cookies and/or cupcakes and of course, a little paper basket with those little colorful heart-shaped candies with sayings like "Be Mine," "Be True," "Kiss Me" and " Love You."

They tasted just like those Necco wafers that were round disks, i.e., hard and chalky, but sweet. Well, it turns out the hearts were made by the same company and basically the same sugary formula. Necco stands for the New England Confectionary Co., and for years its main factory was in Cambridge, visible from the highway.

Necco had its start as far back as 1847, but the heart-shaped candies, called sweethearts, were not concocted until 1901 with such unique flavors as wintergreen, banana and cherry. Those little candies are still popular today, but the chalky formula was changed in 2010 to make a softer candy, more vivid colors, and newer fruit flavors like strawberry, grape, blue raspberry and sour apple.

Sayings are frequently replaced by even more contemporary ones. Not too distant ones like "FAX Me," and "Email Me," are now "Tweet Me," and "Text Me." The romantic ones seem to hold on like "Hug Me," "Kiss Me," "Love You" and "Only You." You can even buy special sayings for new births, marriages and other events with choices that include chocolate or sugar free!

Each day 100,000 pounds of the sweethearts are made as a result of ramped up production in September. An estimated eight billion hearts (13 million pounds) are produced per year.

Grade-school classroom traditions may be similar today, but I imagine somewhat healthier. By the time I entered junior high school, those memorable Valentine's Day celebrations and candies seemed to disappear — at least until the days of teen dating when Valentine's Day had a more romantic meaning.

Valentine's beginnings date back to the third century, more as a religious holiday than romance. The more romantic emphasis and date came about in the 1700s, especially in the U.S. The holiday not only became a special time of romance, but also a tremendously lucrative time for the greeting card, flower, candy and jewelry industries.

Research shows that over $18 billion was spent last year for Valentine's Day in the U.S. On the average, a man spent over $135 for gifts per woman (double the amount women spend), with over $4.3 billion spent on jewelry alone.

Women bought 85 percent of the 190 million cards sold, totaling $1 billion, while men purchased 75 percent of the 50 million roses sold with total flower sales, exceeding $2 billion.

Over 35 million boxes of Valentine chocolates sold as part of $1.7 billion in candy sales. And, believe it or not, at least 9 million people bought Valentine gifts for their pets. Staggering statistics, but a positive time. I trust everyone had a happy Valentine's Day, especially Rover and Fluffy!

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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