If you believe an avocation can be a vocation, well, you need look no further
When was the last time you cocked the plastic head back of a brightly colored cartoon character and took delivery of one of the smallest pieces of candy you’ll ever ingest?
For baby boomers, the PEZ dispenser, with its novel approach of ejecting a sweet treat will forever be etched in that generation’s collective memory. It, along with other novelty items of the era like, Silly Putty, Colorforms and Mr. Potato head were part and parcel of the boomer childhood experience.
But, lest you think those low tech wonders were a fading memory, you’re in for flashback. If you’re traveling on I95 in Connecticut, you might tap the brakes as you approach the town of Orange, which is just under a two hour drive north of Manhattan. You’ll see a nondescript tourism sign promoting the PEZ Visitor Center, and a larger billboard celebrating PEZ, and of course CANDY, in big bold letters. If you’ve got kids in the car old enough to read, or a desire to stretch your legs down memory lane, you’re more than likely making a pit stop.
As you roll up to the visitor center, the ginormous size of the building seems to belie the necessity of such an edifice for the manufacture of a brick-shape candy barely the length of a fingertip. Once inside, visitors are greeted with showcases displaying thousands of designer dispensers, coupled with scores of didactic poster boards sequencing the history of the company, candy, and its unmistakable dispensers.
PEZ was invented in 1927 in Vienna by Eduard Haas III, a confectioner with the intention of creating an alternative to smoking, as well as an appetite suppressant, and if all else fails—a breath mint. The brand name PEZ was carved out of the German word Pfefferminz, meaning in English, peppermint. PEZ stood for the letters in the beginning, middle and end of the word. At that time, the dainty habit deterrent was packaged by the dozen in a tin canister. However, twenty years after its inception, Haas, concerned about sanitary practices, and his desire for a quick unimpeded delivery of his mints, commissioned Viennese inventor Oscar Uxa to come up with a dispenser. And now expanding on its success in Europe, Haas decided in 1952 it was time to bring his product to America.
He opened a distribution center in Queens, NY, but after a couple of years, it was becoming apparent that the brand was not being embraced by consumers in the States. Shawn Peterson, the direct to consumer business manager and de facto company historian, explains how PEZ pivoted to cater to the American palate. “Americans didn’t embrace this product as they had throughout the rest of the world so, instead of saying it’s not working, it’s not meeting expectations, let’s rethink how we’re selling it, and maybe add a dimensional cartoon character head to the top of the dispenser, change from peppermint to fruit flavors, because children don’t like those strong flavors and shift the marketing towards children from adults and see what happens and it made such a quick impact it shifted the direction of the company not only here in the US, but throughout the rest of the world, primarily it’s been a children’s product ever since.”
Now with a presence firmly planted stateside, PEZ found a permanent home here in 1973 in Orange, Connecticut with its one hundred and two thousand square foot facility that includes its factory and visitor center which opened in 2011. Visible from the showroom are portions of the manufacturing process, which commands three shifts a day to turn out 12 million PEZ pieces daily. The dispensers are made oversees and shipped to Orange for packaging.
The visitor center is a cavalcade of dispensers with a veritable who’s who of licensed figures from all walks of popular culture. Popeye’s head was the first three dimensional character to sit atop a dispenser and Santa Claus remains a best seller. Shawn Peterson joined the PEZ team thirteen years ago, but has been collecting the iconic statuettes for the last thirty years. Without missing a beat, he will tell you that 99.9% of the dispensers in the visitor center are part of his private collection.
Peterson’s affinity for the objects began innocently enough, while strolling through flea markets. “There were some dispensers that caught my eye. I bought 5 or 10 of them for fifty cents, one thing led to another, and let me see what there is next time I go, and there’s no books, no internet or resources to see what there is at this point. This the late 80s, early 90s, and you start writing letters, asking questions of people, where did you get this, what else have you seen? And one thing led to another and I actively started pursuing collecting these things.”
To date, the Kansas City native has penned three books on PEZ: one on the history of the company and a couple more on collecting this color piece of Americana. He claims he’s the only collector PEZ has ever hired, and if you believe an avocation can be a vocation, well, you need look no further.
PEZ is a private company still run by the Haas family out of Traun, Austria, and according to the company’s website, their product is distributed in eighty countries around the world. It has created close to fifteen hundred dispensers, and has a team of employees assigned to figuring out whose countenance will grace the next dispenser. PEZ closely monitors requests for the use of its images in movies and TV. Before the popular Sitcom, Seinfeld made the junior mint a part of the plot line in an episode, the comic dispensed a little humor of his own in Season 3, episode 14, bringing along his Tweety Bird dispenser to a piano recital.
For more information on the PEZ center and its hours of operation go to: us.pez.com
If you’re in for a deeper dive, you can take in PEZAMANIA, the annual PEZ convention, now in its 32nd year which takes place this year in Independence, Ohio. For more information head to Pezamania.com
Tom Farkas is a freelance writer, editor and producer and took all of the photos included in this article.