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The Shocking History of PEZ Candy: Smoking Alternative for Adults?!

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 15, 2022 3:00 am

The Shocking History of PEZ Candy: Smoking Alternative for Adults?!

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 15, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories,  PEZ had great success where it was invented, but changed its course drastically after initially failing in America. Shawn Peterson shares the story of how this manual candy dispenser came to be. First jobs are often our first taste in real adult responsibility, they teach us important skills, and they teach us how to deal with people. Brent Timmons shares the story of his first job at a crab house in Delaware.

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00:00 - The Shocking History of PEZ Candy: Smoking Alternative for Adults?!

23:00 - The Importance of a First Job

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MUSIC For those of us loved as kids, Sean Peterson of the PEZ Visitor Center is author of PEZ, From Austrian Invention to American Icon, and he's here to share how it evolved into the brick-shaped candy dispenser that we all know and love today.

Here's Sean. MUSIC PEZ, the brand or the candy, was invented by a man named Edward Haas III. He was an Austrian. The family had been very successful in a variety of businesses up to that point, and they had a nice business providing baking products. And one of the things Mr. Haas noticed was that people were having a difficult time digesting some of the cakes based on some of the ingredients that were in them, and found that peppermint oil was a good way to help in the digestion. And a byproduct of that, you know, it was a way to freshen your breath. And most of all, he really wanted to provide an alternative to smoking.

He was very much a man ahead of his time and didn't really think too much of smoking and the health ramifications of that. So his goal was to kind of come up with an alternative to that. And he found peppermint oil and through this, what's called a cold press method, where you just kind of press the ingredients together, came up with these little PEZ tablets as the product and wanted to see if there was interest. The German word for peppermint is pfeffermintz, and it's actually quite a long word. So he used the first, middle, and last letter of the word pfeffermintz, which was a P, E, and Z.

And he found it was an easily pronounceable word in just about any language. And it was a trademarkable brand name, so it served two purposes in one. And that's really how PEZ got its start. For the first 20 plus years of its creation, there was no dispenser. You either bought the product in a little foil roll, similar to what is offered today, or there was a little metal tin that you could carry them in your pocket. If you're old enough to remember, you know, you could get like Bayer aspirin and a little metal tin, probably associated these days with like an Altoid or something like that, that you could carry in your pocket.

And that was really the only way you could get PEZ for its initial creation. It wasn't till the late 1940s that as success was growing and business was increasing, that he wanted to try something different with that because he was a bit of a germaphobe. You know, I've got this great candy, I'm the founder and inventor of this, but if I want to offer it to you, you've got to put your fingers in that tin to get a piece of candy and it's not really what I want. So he found a freelance designer, a man named Oscar Usha, and commissioned him to come up with some kind of dispensing device for the candy. You know, he put a little thumb grip at the top and some spring mechanisms inside to be able to offer them one at a time.

And that's really how the shape of the dispenser was born. Mr. Ha started selling these in 1927 in Austria, found success rather quickly and expanded the product throughout Europe and other parts of the world. And for him, the last great market to conquer was the United States. So in 1952, they came to lower Manhattan.

They had offices in New York City. They imported all of the products from Europe and tried to sell them as they had throughout the rest of the world as an upscale adult product and marketed as an alternative to smoking. And it really didn't have the success that it had in Europe. In fact, it really did poorly, unfortunately. Well, I say unfortunately, but actually it was probably one of the best things that could have happened to it. It was the lack of success really that drove Pez to innovate and create the changes that have made us successful to this day. They were selling the dispenser without a character head.

It just had a little thumb grip and the only flavor you could get was peppermint. And as I said, it didn't really have the success that they had hoped for. So somebody in marketing said, let's don't pull out of the market.

Let's think about what we're doing and how we could do it differently. And they came up with the idea of putting a three-dimensional character head on top of that dispenser. And children generally don't like peppermint, you know, the strong flavors like that. So the idea was let's add fruit flavors to the candy, put the three-dimensional cartoon character head on top and let's shift the marketing from adults to children. And it changed really the direction of the brand.

They found success very quickly. And, you know, it changed the business model here in the United States as well as globally. And we've been primarily a children's product ever since. The Pez Girl was a, it was kind of the grassroots marketing campaign of how they wanted to advertise Pez.

You know, this is something that nobody was really familiar with. So they had these outfits for ladies to wear. They would hire models to go out and share the brand. And a lot of the early ones had like skirts with big pockets so they could keep a lot of the refills in them.

And they would just go out to events and hand the candy to people, get them to try this new brand and hopefully get people enthused about what this new product was. It was very Penup Girl-esque when it started in the 1950s. So a lot of the early Pez Girls were kind of leggy. And this is when the marketing was being directed towards adults.

And certainly that shifted in the 60s and 70s as it shifted to children. In the 1970s, you can see what looks like a superhero. They had, you know, like knee-high boots on the model. She had a cape and instead of the full Pez logo, it just had like a giant P on the chest.

So it looked, you know, kind of like a superhero. And then they had a and invention to American icon here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to to learn more. And we return to Our American Stories and to Sean Peterson with the story of Pez, the manual candy dispenser. The first traditional head on a stem that you're familiar with today was a witch for Halloween and that was 1957.

And then the first licensed character was 1958 and that was Popeye. And then we followed that with a couple of additions to the seasonal line. We added Santa. For the first time we've been doing Santa ever since.

It's coincidentally one of our best selling, probably our number one seller to this day. We added an Easter line with the Easter bunny that year. And then about 1959, 1960, Casper and Bozo came into the mix. And then 1961, we did Mickey Mouse with Disney for the first time. And I think we're actually the second longest licensed partner with Disney next to Donald Duck orange juice. We've been working with Disney consecutively since 1961. So we've probably produced more Disney characters over the year than any other license. You know, how many are there referring to the dispensers? And this is what collectors like to talk about and argue, you know, I mentioned Santa Claus. We've done many, many iterations of Santa Claus. And is it a variation or is it a different dispenser? And, you know, there's really no right or wrong answer. So if we had to go with just different character heads on top of the dispenser base somewhere in the 1400 ish number range right now.

But if you start factoring in variations and you know, there's really no right or wrong answer as to what constitutes a variation, start adding zeros to that and it easily goes into thousands upon thousands. Right now we have 15 different flavors that we offer the six core fruit flavors and that's cherry, grape, lemon, strawberry, orange, raspberry, you know, the things that you're familiar with. We do four sour flavors and then we do some seasonal flavors, candy corn for Halloween. We do cotton candy. We just introduced a new dragon fruit flavor to go with our Game of Thrones gift set that we introduced.

And then we do sugar cookie for Christmas and vanilla cupcake for Easter. So that gives us 15 current flavors that we offer but we rotate things in and out every few years. We try to introduce something new and to do that we usually retire a different flavor to try to keep it fresh and different. There's been many many dozens of different flavors offered throughout the year. We just retired cola and chocolate.

We made those for probably a couple of decades and finally decided it was time to retire and try something different. We produce here at the factory about 12 million individual candy tablets per day. There's certainly some top collectors out there that have some incredible collections. There's people, it's really surprising, you know, they'll go in and do buyouts of other collectors and it's things they already have and they've got like mini warehouses in their basement, you know, and they may have 5,000 of the same dispenser but that's part of the enjoyment for them. They like just having the quantity of it and then there's other people that focus on not having duplicates but they want something different and they have thousands upon thousands, you know, in their collection. So it's really up to how you want to enjoy and and collect.

It's what makes the hobby so much fun is, you know, everybody's got their own take on it but there's certainly some really impressive collections out there when you look at what people have been able to put together. The factory's been here since 1973. This is the site that they chose when they first decided to to manufacture. They ended up moving the offices from New York City to here in Connecticut in in the early 70s and we've been manufacturing in this facility ever since.

And then the visitor center came to be. I think the original idea was around 2006 and it actually came from me. I approached the company. They were familiar with me through some of the books that I'd published about the history of PEZ and documented all the various dispensers and things like that and they were using the books. People would come into marketing and they would share my book with them and, you know, look you can get some ideas from this and see what we've done and when I approached they kind of knew who I was at that time and met with the CEO of the company and I said I know you guys haven't done this before but I think it'd be a great idea if you had some kind of historical museum aspect to the business and, you know, maybe a retail piece attached to that that people could come in and get a sense of the PEZ history and how it's changed and evolved and have an opportunity to sell them all things PEZ right there at the same facility. And if you like the idea I'd like to be the guy to put that together and run it for you. He said we're just not ready for that step yet but let's stay in touch so I took every opportunity that I could for the next few years to, you know, remind him that I'm still around and had interest in doing this and it was about late 2009.

He called and said, you know, if you're still interested let's talk about doing this. I'm actually from Kansas City so not only did I have to move a household I had to move an entire collection halfway across the country and we figured out how to do that and got me here to Connecticut and began the process of constructing the visitor center. So while we were doing that we got a general contractor and started figuring out who can supply giant PEZ dispensers and PEZ related fixtures and all the cool stuff that we have here in the the visitor center.

We started that process and then I began work on on the website and figuring out how to get the online store aspect together. That all took about a year and a half and in the meantime the visitor center is being constructed and then we finally got it open December of 2011. To me coming into work every day, you know, I see this every single day and I still find myself stopping and looking around and just kind of enjoying the space and I'm the one that, you know, kind of put the stuff on the walls and put everything in the display cases but I still enjoy it, you know, 10 years later. It's still so much fun for me to have not only a place for my collection but being able to share it with everybody now that comes in to see us.

The majority of business that we have and people that come through the door, you know, to this day 10 years later I think that's the thing that surprises me most. It's, you know, people that had no idea they were going to be here today and they just saw the signs along the highway and it's the PEZ factory and we know what that is but let's go. We've never been and they come in and the positive comments and feedback that we hear from people it's just like, you know, it's amazing. We had no idea there was this much to PEZ and to me that's exciting and really one of the goals behind this for me was just to share it with people. It's been a big part of my life. I've been doing this for over 30 years and I'm still really enthusiastic about it.

It's exciting. There's still things that, you know, are yet to be discovered and, you know, being able to share that with people and hopefully create that spark of interest that maybe wants to get them involved to where maybe they're going to start their own collection themselves or, you know, maybe they think about PEZ a little bit differently the next time they see it in the store and they've been to the factory and they watched where it was being packaged and saw how we make the candy. It kind of gives you a different appreciation for the brand and what we do so that's really the most exciting thing for me and it was just kind of a happy mistake trying to adapt to the market and, you know, had they not done that nobody would have probably heard about PEZ.

It would just been a footnote in history of a mint or an alternative to smoking like many products that have come and gone. It certainly wasn't intentional or the original idea of it but, you know, it was being able to adapt and just find the right market. It changed and created a sense of PEZ being part of pop culture ever since, you know, it's a relatable brand that everybody knows. And a special thanks to Madison for bringing us this terrific story and a special thanks to Shawn Peterson of the PEZ Visitor Center and by all means pick up his book PEZ from Austrian invention to American icon at Amazon or the usual suspects and if you're in the Connecticut area and that's orange visit the PEZ Visitor Center better still if you can't get there go to and take a virtual tour and by the way since the partnership with Disney and Mickey there have been many other partnerships with brands and with characters and you can find the Muppets, Sesame Street characters, the Marvel characters, Star Wars characters, The Wizard of Oz, Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, Mario, The Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, Pokemon, and Angry Birds.

The story of PEZ here on Our American Stories. And we return to Our American Stories and for many of us our first job is one of our most memorable which makes sense first jobs help shape people and for many of us become our first taste in real adult responsibility. Up next a story about a first job here's our regular contributor from Delaware Brent Timmons with his story.

During my high school and college years I worked at a restaurant the Fenwick Crab House in Fenwick Island Delaware. The restaurant was owned by Casher and Mabel Evans from 1962 to 1983. In February of 2006 I sent this letter to Mrs. Evans. Mr. Evans had previously passed. Dear Mrs. Evans, this correspondence is long overdue. There were a few things I've been meaning to tell you.

This is no exaggeration. I have a dream about the Crab House two or three times a year. It is always a similar dream. I come into the kitchen years after having worked there and I'm expected to cook. But it has been so long that I can't remember what to do.

It isn't traumatic or anything. I just realized that time has passed and I need to relearn the job. Those years in the kitchen must have made quite an impression for me to still be dreaming about the Crab House. I became aware of job openings through Michael.

It was the spring after we got our driver's license 1977. Mike came to school one day and said he had gotten a job at the Crab House. I asked what he would be doing. Washing dishes and peeling potatoes are the only two chores I can recall.

I could do that I thought and working with my best friend Mike would be ideal. A nervous phone call to Mr. Evans ended with an invitation to come to Selbyville to interview for a job. He told me where he lived. A white house in view of Rick's laundromat. The only house with a picket fence. I drove to Selbyville to a house with a picket fence in view of Rick's.

No one came to the door. A neighbor alerted me that I was at the wrong house. You lived in the other only house with a picket fence. I passed the interview and had landed my first job. Perhaps it was my relation to my grandfather Elias, a good friend of Mr. Evans, that made him feel obligated to give me a chance.

Well that and how hard could it be anyway. Despite my inability to find your house I did find the Crab House on that first day of work. I drove down with Mike thinking the company would help with first day jitters. I had known a few people who had worked there.

My older brother Buddy included. He lasted about a week. My first day on the job I came under the instruction of Will Daisy. Will was only a couple of years older than I but seemed much more mature and wise. He became one of my mentors at the Crab House. He seemed flawless in his job. He was universally accepted as our peer leader. While Will was our peer leader we also had our teacher leader Dave Baker who coached basketball and taught school.

How did you find these guys? Dave had been there 13 years and Will about five by the time I came. They were wholeheartedly devoted to the restaurant but most of all devoted to the Crab House family. I had great respect for both of them. You know as well as I that the Crab House would have been a very different place without them.

I learned from them what defined the proper relationship between us employees and you and Mr. Evans the owners. That first summer I washed dishes and did occasionally peel potatoes although you had that nifty potato peeler. I learned that if you left the potatoes in too long you ended up with potatoes the size of golf balls and cherry tomatoes and I also learned or actually relearned to make salad.

We made salad on that table in the back porch next to the coleslaw mixer. I was standing there one day during cucumbers. It took no great skill cut both ends off and feed them through the slicer but I managed to fumble on step one. I was cutting the ends back to where the seeds started. Mr. Evans came strolling in to see what we were up to.

Why are you cutting so much off the end of the cucumber? He questioned. Well that's the way my mother does it. I responded. It was then I first learned about the quick wit and intolerance for impertinence of Mr. Evans. How long has your mother been in the restaurant business?

He bellowed. I don't think I intentionally determined to cut the cucumbers in a way that was different from how I was told to but I did learn that day the importance of paying close attention to instructions. We've gotten many a laugh recalling that story. My mother especially enjoyed it. It may have been about my second year when my impertinence reared its ugly head again.

I was a slow learner. Mr. Townsend a very very old man would come in to eat several times a week. I didn't really grasp the significance of what Mr. Evans was doing for him at the time because I was young and self-centered. Mr. Evans would hand prepare Mr. Townsend's dinner. It was usually, no, make that always, broiled chicken breast, no skin, sauteed asparagus, and boiled potatoes. Mr. Evans viewed the task of cooking for his old friend as a privilege. I viewed it as just a chore. Sometimes Mr. Evans would cut up the chicken himself but often he would come to me and ask that I go get a chicken and do the honors as I was one of the resident chicken prep guys.

By this time in my crab house career I'd advanced to clam man, a job I took over from Rex Palmer. I thought that I was very busy one night when Mr. Evans requested that I cut up two chicken breasts for him. A little exasperated and wondering why he couldn't do it himself, I said Mr. Evans I'm really busy right now.

Wrong answer. You're not too busy to work for me, he shouted. I had missed the whole point of Mr. Townsend's dinners. I was too young to have an old friend that I loved to serve. I had my first serious relationship while working at the crab house. She was a wonderful girl and Mr. Evans loved her but he felt it was important to constantly tell me the hazards of first relationships. He warned me over and over about these hazards.

I ignored him and finally figured out on my own that maybe these should not occur your senior year of high school. I had my second serious relationship right after ending the relationship with my first, also a waitress at the crab house. She was a wonderful girl as well and Mr. Evans loved her as well too. He did not warn me about second relationships.

His mistake was that he should have warned the girls about me, not the other way around. And you've been listening to Brent Timmons share with great detail, great emotional memory too, his first job at the crab house. From everything from his duties to well his loves, his first two loves, springing from that employment. And there's nothing like working to get to know people, especially in a business like that.

The amount of time you spend together and the stress you suffer through together and the slow times you get through together. When we come back, more of Brent Timmons on his first job at the crab house and the things he learned from it and perhaps is still gleaning some wisdom from. More with Brent Timmons, his first job here on Our American Story. And we continue with Our American Stories and Brent Timmons story on his first job at the Fenwick at the Fenwick Crab House in Delaware, working for Kasher and Mabel Evans. My point out that this story is actually a reading of a letter he wrote to Mabel Evans. When we last left off, Brent was telling us about some of the lessons he learned there from the pitfalls of young love to how to cut a cucumber properly.

Let's continue with the story. I mentioned that I had taken over the job of clam man for Rex. Rex had a way of joking and kidding that I really enjoyed. One day, while training me on the clam steamer, he mentioned that if you aren't sure if a clam is good or not, you can tap two together. If they make a solid clicking sound, they are both good. If one is dead, it won't hold its shell tightly together and it will make a dull thud. It was legitimate instruction, I think.

You never knew about Rex. He may have overemphasized the necessity of this task because I took him to mean that you should do this on every clam you put in the bucket for steaming. So if you were to observe me doing clams, you would have heard an incessant tapping. I can be a little compulsive and it became a compulsion to tap clams together.

I didn't want a dead clam in the steamer. Mr. Evans caught me doing this early on. He asked why I was knocking the clams together and I told him, not impertinently mind you, that I was checking to see if they were good.

Rex told me to do it, I added. I had learned from the cucumber episode to follow instructions to the T. Mr. Evans roared in laughter. From that day on, he referred to me as Knock Knock.

It makes me laugh just thinking about it. The following spring, working some before the season started, he had forgotten what nickname he had given me. I reminded him and Knock Knock stuck for the rest of my time at the crab house. Eventually, I moved up to line cook. It wasn't until recently that I realized I wasn't really cut out to be a line cook. My favorite thing to do at the crab house was to cook out of Siberia II. Siberia was a long stroll to the other end of the kitchen and was given that name due to its remote location. Siberia II was the smaller line in that kitchen. I like Siberia II because it's just a couple of waitresses and would be able to work on one or two orders at a time.

What I realized just a few years ago is that I am not a great multi-task person. I don't do well trying to do a bunch of stuff all at once, thus my attraction to the small line in Siberia. My next favorite job was Siberia I. It was not as busy as the main kitchen and much less chaotic. So even when it did get busy down there, there were fewer things to distract me from cooking. Plus, working in Siberia I normally meant you would be the first to get off work. I don't know if everyone else knew this about my abilities or not. If they did, they were sensitive enough not to make a big deal out of it.

But my guess is that you would be the first person to do it. But my guess is that you all understood our strengths and weaknesses and put us where we would work the best. It was wise on your part and as I look back, much appreciated on mine. One of the things I really enjoyed was the pre-season work. I enjoyed going with Will and Mr. Evans down to the crab house before we opened for the season. I liked being in that group of people who could be on the inside.

Perhaps I was really seeking to be a right hand. I wanted to be a go-to guy for Mr. Evans. On a Saturday morning after the restaurant season had ended, Mr. Evans called me at home.

He invited me to go to a University of Delaware football game with you. It was the same day that my grandfather chose to dig out his potatoes, a yearly task for one Saturday in the fall. He would plant rows and rows, enough to feed everyone in our family who wanted them, for the entire winter. We would all go and dig them out after he turned over the dirt with the tractor.

It was an all-day affair of digging, loading them in the baskets, and transporting them to the pump house for storage. I enjoyed it to a degree, but I also viewed it as sort of an obligation, partly so we could share in the free potatoes all winter, and partly because Pop-Pop couldn't do it alone. Today Mr. Evans called. I can't really say I was totally thrilled about going to the game. I had never been to a college game, and there were the potatoes. Looking back, I am sure my family would have given me the go-ahead to go to the game, but I dug potatoes instead. I should have gone to the game with you and Mr. Evans. I should have taken advantage of your generosity.

It was a great privilege to have been invited to spend the day with you, and in my short-sightedness, I missed it. There is a brick wall in front of Prince George's Chapel in Dagsboro. Sections of it have been replaced over the years due to cars driving through it. Some of those bricks were due to Kendra West driving her car through it late one night after work. She fell asleep on her way home. I don't exactly know what you did, but I recall hearing that you either loaned her the money to buy a new car, or gave her some money towards a new car. Either way, it was a very generous and caring thing for you to do, and I took note of it. It was completely in character for both of you. One summer, Dorothy had a hernia repaired. You made a place for her out front, seating customers while she recovered.

Perhaps it was a wise move on your part of the family, but you did not have to recover. Perhaps it was a wise move on your part, as she was so cheerful and chatty and cute, but I was very aware that you were taking care of her until she was well enough to go back to waiting tables. While I was dating Sherry, you invited us to a New Year's Eve party in Rehoboth, the old Landing Country Club, I think, or perhaps it was the Rehoboth Beach Yacht and Country Club. It was a very classy affair, as one would expect.

The old folks did the jitterbug and whatnot. We felt privileged to spend the evening with you. I knew that we were much more than a couple of kids who just work for you, and that is my whole point. You and Mr. Evans made us all a part of your lives. We were not just employees. You loved us, and we loved you back, because you earned it by investing yourselves in our lives. I learned in those five years that life isn't just about work.

It is more about people, and when you do it right, some of us end up dreaming about it for the next 24 years. I've often wondered if I could have better spent my summers someplace other than the Crab House. At least one spring, I was considering looking elsewhere for a summer job. I waited until late spring to call Mr. Evans and let him know I would like to return to the Crab House that year. Mr. Evans seemed to know what I had been contemplating.

He didn't say much about it, but he said just enough to let me know it bothered him that I had felt the need to consider going someplace else. I could only recall thinking about not returning that one year. If I had, in fact, done something else with my summers, I would not have learned about the pitfalls of young relationships. A first-hand experience, I shall be sure to try to relate to my own children. I would have missed the opportunity to work with a wide variety of young kids of all kinds of backgrounds. The Crab House was a training ground for relationships.

I would have missed all of that, and I would not have had the opportunity to work with a couple 50 years my senior and to develop a friendship with that couple that went far beyond an employee-employer relationship. I don't think the fruit of that experience is over yet. I fully expect someday to have an opportunity to befriend young men and women 50 years my junior and be able to influence their lives as you and Mr. Evans did mine. And at that time, I expect to hear an almost audible bell go off in my head, and I'll say to myself, now this is why I spent five of the most impressionable years of my life at the Crab House with Mr. and Mrs. Evans.

And a terrific job on the production by Monty, and a special thanks to Brent Timmons for sharing his story of his first summer job. And by the way, he did that by reading a letter that he had written to Mabel Evans, she and her husband Cash were the owners of the Fenwick Crab House, where young Brent did so much learning. Working for a couple 50 years older than him, well, that memory still burns in him because he's now hoping to transfer his knowledge to a generation or two generations behind him. And that's how so much of our learning happens. It gets passed along from generation to generation, and we love sharing these intergenerational stories because old and young have a lot to give each other. The story of Brent Timmons, the story of a first job, of first loves, and so much more here on Our American Story.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 10:15:41 / 2023-02-17 10:29:11 / 14

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