Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Civil War Soldiers and Conversation Hearts

Heather Cox Richardson

Valentine’s Day is synonymous with Sweethearts Conversation Hearts, those heart-shaped sugar candies with the messages on them: “Be Mine,” “I’m Yours,” and now, “E-mail Me.” The hearts are made in Revere, Massachusetts, at the New England Confectionery Company. Necco makes them from late February through mid-January of the following year for the Valentine’s Day market. They manufacture about 100,000 pounds a day, making more than 8 billion of the hearts every year.

Conversation hearts are the holiday version of the perennial Necco Wafers. Rumor—in the shape of an NPR story, a Boston Globe story, and hundreds of references on the internet—says that Union soldiers carried Necco wafers, which were called Hub Wafers in those days, in their haversacks. To write a lecture on the growth of industry during the Civil War, I set out to verify that little tidbit.

It was harder than you would think.

The histories on the Necco website and the Reference For Business website explain that Necco is the oldest candy company in America. In its earliest incarnation, it was founded in 1847 by an English immigrant to Boston, Oliver B. Chase, and his brother. Chase invented a device that would cut a simple candy, made of sugar, gelatin, and flavoring, into wafers. These early candies were called “Hub Wafers” (“Hub” was the nineteenth-century nickname for Boston). They were surprisingly popular, since they were cheap, durable, and lasted a very long time. This made them easy to ship and to carry, and thus, a likely thing for Civil War soldiers to take with them on their long marches.

But these histories don’t mention the Civil War. To solve my problem, I decided to try the company directly. Telephone calls to the Necco headquarters netted me only answering machines and an email to the company went unanswered.

So I turned to Civil War reenactors. Surely, in their quest for accuracy, they would know whether or not Union soldiers had carried Hub Wafers. Two hours of trolling through reenacting outfitters, newsletters, and educational websites about what Civil War soldiers carried netted me fascinating glimpses of army life (the US Army Center of Military History has a great website on haversacks and mess gear), but nothing on Hub Wafers. A telephone call to a reenactor yielded a fun chat, but no information on Hub Wafers. He had never heard of them.

Turning to primary sources on-line offered more information. In fact, Hub Wafers—or Necco Wafers, as they were sometimes known by the twentieth century, since both words were on the wrapper—seem to have become very visible and very popular in 1913-1915. Both advertising images and original wrappers are available from this era, some for purchase. The ads promise apothecary owners that the wafers will increase profits; they assure mothers that the candies are healthy and a good addition to afternoon tea. It turns out that this timing makes sense. According to the company history, Necco launched an aggressive advertising campaign in 1912; and in 1913, made much of the fact that Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan took Necco Wafers along on his journey, “using them for nutrition and as rewards to Eskimo children.”

By the 1930s, the candies had a huge following. During the Depression, they were cheap enough to be a treat, and well-loved enough that Admiral Richard Byrd took two tons of Necco Wafers on his own polar expedition. By the time of Pearl Harbor, they were the nation’s premier portable candy: the US government requisitioned the entire output of the Necco factory during WWII.

I never did find a historical source for the information that Civil War soldiers carried Hub Wafers. My guess is that some Boston boys did, as they would have carried other foods from home, but that it was hardly systematic. Instead, my search taught me that before modern techniques of refrigeration enabled people to keep chocolate from melting and spoiling, portability was such an important quality in a sweet that Necco was able to turn its wafers into the nation’s leading candy. While eclipsed now by newer products, Necco Wafers still exist, sold in a wrapper almost identical to that of 100 years ago.

Not bad for a candy that may—or may not—have been carried by Civil War soldiers.


Gabriel Loiacono said...

This is really fascinating, if also a great example of how frustrating historical research can sometimes be. My mom is a big aficionado of Necco Wafers, and though I am not a fan of much candy, I like the simplicity of these wafers. Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

My g, g grandmother wrote to her husband (Civil War soldier): "I sent postage stamps I beleave it was in my last, also some wafers in a tribune." I suspect "tribune" is a newspaper. Wafers might be some kind of dried glue, or maybe Necco Wafers. She was living in a small town in Ohio with no Boston ties. Food for thought