How the Necco Wafer Has Lasted This Long

By: John Donovan  | 

Necco wafers
Necco Wafer candies hit the market in 1847, and other than a short hiatus between 2018 and 2020, they've sold steadily ever since. Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Sugarplums — whatever the heck they are — positively dance through kids' heads at the end of the year. Figgy pudding — again, what? — is evidently, according to the somewhat beloved Christmas carol, high on some people's wish list.

But Necco Wafers? They've been around for more than a century and a half, still wrapped in their familiar wax package, and nobody breaks out in song about them. At any time of the year. It's a seasonal shame.

OK ... that's not strictly true. Diana Eschhofen, a representative for the Spangler Candy Company of Bryan, Ohio — a family-owned affair that itself has been around since 1906 — will sing high praises about the Necco. Conventional candy lovers far and wide may look on the humble multi-flavored wafers as some kind of sick gift from a crotchety old grandmother. But Eschhofen knows better. And she has history on her side.

"Our research and experience have made it clear," she says in an email, "that Necco Wafers are loved by people from all generations and all walks of life."

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What Are Necco Wafers?

If you're new to the Necco, first, its name. Necco is an acronym, of sorts, for the now-defunct New England Candy Company, which launched its eponymous product in 1901, though the original version of the wafer first was popped out of a lozenge-cutting machine in 1847. For comparison's sake, the Hershey's Bar came along in 1900; the Milky Way bar was introduced in 1924; Reese's Peanut Butter Cups were unveiled in 1928 and the Snickers bar in 1930. M&Ms came along in 1941.

So save those down-nose looks for other, lesser candies. The Necco, which traveled with troops in the Civil War and World War II, deserves a little respect.

Second, the Necco is, in an admirably proud kind of way, not your average chocolate bar. It is, as the name points out, a candy wafer, sold in 24-count rolls meant for sharing. These wafers — think flat Mentos, or big Life Savers, though the Necco is snap-worthy and tastes nothing like those candies — come in eight distinct colors and flavors. From Spangler, which took over the brand in 2018:

The eight all-time favorite flavors and colors ... [include] lemon (yellow), lime (green), orange (orange), clove (light purple), cinnamon (white), wintergreen (pink), licorice (dark grey) and chocolate (brown).
Necco wafers
Neccos come in eight flavors, including (clockwise from left) wintergreen (pink), lime (green), orange (orange) and lemon (yellow).
Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

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What Do Necco Wafers Taste Like?

The third bit you need to know about the Necco Wafer is its taste. And that's where the real candy snobs get all huffy.

Neccos are made with sugar and corn syrup and have pretty much zero nutritional value (though they are fat- and sodium-free). They are chalky-tasting to most everybody that tries them and, in a host of snarky online taste tests and candy Top 10 lists, constantly rate among the worst of modern candies, up (or down) there with Circus Peanuts, another Spangler product.

They are, even according to Eschhofen, not candy to many admirers, instead used as "shingles for gingerbread houses, for kids to practice communion, edible poker chips and place markers."

Still, somebody out there likes them for their taste. In 2009, the Necco people made the first change to the wafers' recipe since its inception, trying to rid the candy of artificial colors and flavors.

Fans would have none of it. Sales dropped by 35 percent.

"When you're tampering with the family jewels for [the first time in] 150 years," Necco Vice President of Research and Quality Jeff Green told NPR in 2011, "we expected some fallout. I don't think we expected it to be quite what it was."

Necco jettisoned the new wafer version, a la New Coke, sold the brand in 2018 and, after a brief hiatus, Spangler brought the old Necco back, to a decent degree of fanfare, in early 2020. They can be found in major supermarkets and drugstores across America today.

Necco wafers
Necco wafers are sorted by colors in trays and then mixed together in portions.
Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Bringing Back the Necco Wafer in 2020

Necco Wafers may not be particularly healthy (though, have you seen the sugar content in a Three Musketeers?) or, to many people's palates, particularly tasty. But they have a niche that they are uniquely qualified to fill.

Spangler did a survey early in 2020 and found that 73 percent of Americans have had, or are at least familiar with, Necco Wafers. Baby boomers and Gen X get them. A hefty 71 percent of millennials know Neccos. The only group that wasn't all that familiar with the wafers were those in the 18-23 age group. Only 40 percent of them had even heard of Necco Wafers.

But if those Gen Zers stick around long enough — kind of like the wafer itself — who knows? A Necco Renaissance? A new appreciation for these pasty, pastel, crunchy chalk-like treats?

"Necco Wafers bring back the kind of familiar, comfortable feeling we are all craving. For some, it's the feel of that familiar wax paper roll in their hands, still sporting its classic logo. For others, it will be tearing open and peeling back the wrapper to flip through the row of flavored discs to find their favorite," Eschhofen says. "For still others, it will be feeling each wafer melt on the tongue, or that satisfying snap of biting down. For everyone, it's classic and sweet."

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