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"PEZ: From Austrian Invention To American Icon"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 9, 2023 3:00 am

"PEZ: From Austrian Invention To American Icon"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 9, 2023 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.

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As you know, we're a nation of immigrants, but it's not just people that travel. It's also their ideas. One of these ideas is something that many 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. 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, 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 pfeffermints, and it's actually quite a long word. So he used the first, middle, and last letter of the word pfeffermints, 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 in 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 his 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. Haas 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 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. 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 can 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, 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 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.

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 pinup 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 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 kind of like a superhero and it worked. And you're listening to Sean Peterson of the PEZ Visitor Center and telling a story we tell again and again here on this show that a failure, and that's the failure to launch the PEZ product that had worked internationally here in the United States. And what did they do? Well, they learned from the market, they adapted and actually took PEZ to a place they'd never been before.

Again, a failure leads to a success. When we come back, more from Sean Peterson, author of PEZ from Austrian 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.

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Ask your health care provider about Ozempic today. And we return to our American stories and to Shawn 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 nineteen fifty seven. And then the first licensed character was nineteen fifty eight.

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 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 nineteen fifty nine, nineteen sixty Casper and Bozo came into the mix. And then nineteen sixty one, 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 nineteen sixty one. 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 fourteen hundred 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 fifteen 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 fifteen 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 twelve 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 five thousand 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 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 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 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 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 visitor center. We started that process and then I began work 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 from 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 don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel. We'll see you next time.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-09 04:15:47 / 2023-01-09 04:24:25 / 9

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