What’s the truth about Necco? Candy is believed to have been first invented by the Ancient Egyptians, though back then it was made of simpler ingredients like honey, fruit, and nuts (via the Orlando Sentinel). Since then, candy has taken on so many different shapes and flavors that defining it is almost impossible. Some of it isn’t even sweet!
In Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, for instance, salted black licorice is a hugely popular candy, but it’s definitely not sweet in the traditional sense (via The New York Times). Meanwhile, in Japan there are more than 80 different Kit Kat flavors on the market, including some you’ll never see in Western stores like ube (purple yams) and even wasabi (via Mental Floss).
Of course, candy has also changed a lot over time as techniques, technology, and tastes have evolved. However, there’s one candy still on store shelves that hasn’t been changed much at all for over 150 years, and that’s Necco Wafers. While they might seem simple and sweet, Necco Wafers are cemented as a part of the United States’ history… in more ways than one.
What are Necco Wafers?
If you’re not familiar, Necco Wafers are round, pastel-colored candy disks that look (and, to some, taste) a bit like chalk, or even chewable indigestion medicine (via Mental Floss). They come in a pack of 24 wafers, wrapped in wax paper packaging emblazoned with the red Necco logo.
This gluten-free candy is made up of sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, natural and artificial flavors, vegetable gums, chocolate, citric acid, and added colors. Additionally, Necco Wafers comes in eight flavors with corresponding colors. Those include flavors still popular today, like "lemon (yellow), lime (green), orange (orange)… licorice (dark grey) and chocolate (brown)," but also a few more uncommon flavors like "clove (purple), cinnamon (white), and wintergreen (pink)" (via Spangler Candy).
You might think of Necco Wafers as simply your older relative’s favorite childhood candy, but this staple sweet is also much more than that. In fact, it’s been a part of America’s history since way back in 1847.
This is how Necco came to be
Necco Wafers, originally called hub wafers, were first invented in the United States by an English immigrant named Oliver Chase (via BuzzFeed). Chase was also the innovator responsible for inventing the first American lozenge-cutting (or candy-making) machine that very same year, 1847 (via Spangler Candy). That’s right, Necco Wafers are over 170 years old! Of course, it would take years for them to become widely available.
In 1901, Chase’s company became the New England Confectionary Company, or Necco for short, and began officially selling Necco Wafers (via Candy Favorites). Then, a year later, the company released the first ever conversation hearts, which remain an iconic candy to this day.
By the ’50s, the popularity of Necco Wafers had begun to wane, and so Necco began a huge advertising campaign for their wafers; they touted them as the perfect Christmas stocking stuffer, Valentines Day sweet, and candy for Halloween’s trick-or-treaters (via Click Americana). This was successful enough to kept them relevant for decades to come. However, despite their long-lasting popularity, the rise of Necco Wafers wasn’t all sweetness.
The untold truth of Necco Wafers in combat
Thanks in part to their portability, Necco Wafers became a part of America’s military history very early on. In fact, hub wafers were carried by soldiers as far back as the Civil War!
Then, according to historian Beth Kimmerle, "by 1899, the U.S. government began including [the] candy in soldiers’ rations to improve morale, increase caloric intake, and ‘improve endurance and health,’" (via Eater). This effort must have been at least partially successful, because the presence of candy in conflict definitely didn’t end there. In fact, Necco Wafers would go on to be "shipped to battlefields during the Spanish-American War" as well.
But, it wasn’t until 1917 that the U.S. government bought "one entire year’s production of Necco Wafers and packed them into soldiers’ ration packs." While other candies, like chocolate, were also popular with soldiers, and similarly shipped in to boost morale, Necco Wafers were more portable, could survive almost any temperature conditions, and offered a two-year shelf life (via History). Other candies just couldn’t compete. However, this wasn’t the last time that a large order of Necco Wafers would be a part of history.
The sudden, two-year disappearance of Necco
In 1928, explorer and naval officer Admiral Richard Byrd brought 2.5 tons of, you guessed it, Necco Wafers on his expedition to the South Pole. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, it was; coming out to "about a pound a week for each person during their two-year stay" (via Spangler Candy).
Thanks to their deep military and historical roots, plus several successful ad campaigns, Necco Wafers managed to remain on shelves for over a hundred years, joined by such other Necco hits as Sweethearts, Clark Bars, and Mighty Malts… until the Necco plant was unexpectedly shut down in 2018 by their new owner, Round Hill Investments LLC (via CNN Business).
The news came as a shock to Necco fans, who were left bereft for two full years, until Spangler Candy finally announced the classic candies would be returning to store shelves in 2020 (via CNN Business). Luckily for those fans, Necco Wafers remain in production today with the original formula and wax paper packaging (except for the chocolate wafer, which was changed to include more cocoa flavor). So if you ever fancy a true taste of the past, you know where you can get one.
The non-stop nostalgia of Necco
If you’re below a certain age, you might still be wondering why people still enjoy Necco Wafers, particularly after so many years and with so many competing candies on the market. The answer seems to be hinged on one powerful emotion: nostalgia.
Try asking some of your older family members about their memories of Necco Wafers, and you may start to see a pattern of sweet associations with this arguably outdated candy. For instance, one account on the Old Time Candy blog reads: "My favorite candy is Necco Wafers. We would go camping several times a summer and always go to the camp store and buy necco wafers and eat them out by the campfire. My siblings and I would trade colors so that we could have the favorites and we’d always give the black ones to my dad lol. My favorite was the green! When I have the rare chance to find them I always buy them and take them up to him."
Even if you don’t have a family memory associated with Necco Wafers, you can still appreciate them for their historical importance, or as arguably the best candy shingles for your holiday gingerbread house (via Eater).