In a 1992 Seinfeld episode, Jerry and Elaine are sitting in the audience at a piano recital for George’s girlfriend, Noel. George is nervous, worried Jerry will embarrass him in some way, which offends the latter. Nevertheless, Jerry behaves, albeit momentarily. As Noel begins Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, he takes out a Tweety Bird Pez dispenser and offers it to Elaine. At first, she tries to contain her laughter at his silly antics, but to little effect. She leaves the theater cackling — which Noel will “never forget for the rest of her life.”
What started as round peppermint “drops” intended to curb smoking have transformed into one of the most internationally renowned and recognizable candies in the world. As evidenced by the Seinfeld episode, the colorful brick treats have been featured across pop culture, Christie’s Auction House, TV and movies like the 1986 film “Stand By Me,” which had a character who said, “If I could only have one food for the rest of my life? That’s easy. PEZ. Cherry-flavored PEZ.”
The dispensers, meanwhile, have garnered a cult following since first appearing on shelves in the mid-1950s. Some are incredibly valuable to collectors, fetching more than tens of thousands of dollars, while conventions displaying the variety of characters — from Mickey Mouse to U.S. Presidents — have been held across the country for decades.
When PEZ expanded its operations to the United States, the company chose Orange, Conn. (only a ten-minute drive from yours truly), breaking ground on a warehouse and manufacturing facility on Nov. 19, 1973, according to the candy’s website.
So how did PEZ become an iconic cultural phenomenon? And why has the company called Connecticut home for more than 50 years?
This is a history of the famous candy.
‘Smoking Prohibited, PEZing Allowed’
PEZ’s humble origins began with the ingenuity of Eduard Haas III, born in Vienna, Austria, 1897. According to his Candy Hall of Fame biography, he worked for his family’s baking powder company, and at 18-years-old, “innovated the product as ‘Hasin for the baking of health sponge cakes,’ which is reportedly the first ready-made cake mixture.”
This inspired the young man toward other pursuits in the “confectionary world,” as noted by Smithsonian Magazine, eventually settling on mass-producing peppermints. In the 1920s, Haas collaborated with a chemist to develop a “process to cold-press the sugar-based tablets,” which allowed the “peppermint flavor to be enjoyed without the loss that had occurred through previous heat-based manufacturing processes.” Originally a round candy packaged in small tins, he called the product PEZ: a shortened version of the German word for peppermint, pfefferminz.
PEZ quickly became a hit in Germany, and by the 1930s, the candy design became the rectangular shape it’s known for today. To meet demand, the company built a factory in Czechoslovakia to manufacture on a massive scale in 1935.
Initially, the peppermint candy was marketed to adults, especially to smokers. An anti-smoking advocate, Haas believed PEZ might “appeal to those who may have been trying to quit” by offering a fresh alternative to a cigarette, according to a biography by Lemelson-MIT. One of the more famous slogans used by the company was “Smoking prohibited, PEZing allowed.”
In another marketing ploy, the company hired young women — who became known as PEZ girls — “to drive around crowded locations in PEZ-branded trucks, wearing PEZ uniforms, and stand near busy squares and major events to hand out free samples of the peppermint treats,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
By the late 1940s, PEZ was a regional, European success — but, always seeking ways to innovate, Haas longed to share the candies more hygienically. Therefore, he commissioned inventor Oscar Uxa to design a “small mechanical box for dispensing the tablets,” according to PEZ’s website. In 1948, the first PEZ dispenser (holding 12 tablets, the same as today) was patented, and in the following year, it debuted at the Vienna Trade Fair.
It would take a few more years for the dispensers to develop into a phenomenon, and for the company to expand into the United States.
Taking a Chance on Connecticut
PEZ established a New York Office in 1952 and began exporting candies the same year. However, breaking into America wasn’t a given for the company, as adults in the United States market were uninterested in “smoking abatement” compared to their European counterparts, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The company had to “pivot” — and did so toward U.S. children. For the first time, introduced lemon and chlorophyll-mint as new flavors, along with orange, strawberry and grape. Still, sales were relatively lackluster. Although initially reluctant, Haas turned toward transforming the dispenser into a children’s toy. In 1956, PEZ created the “space gun” and, a year later, added three-dimensional character heads. The earliest character dispensers were the Halloween Witch, a robot and Santa Claus (which is PEZ’s best-selling design); meanwhile, Popeye became the first licensed character to adorn a PEZ dispenser.
The new dispensers were a smash hit, and continue to be one of PEZ’s distinguishable novelties. Since the 1950s, the company has designed more than 1,400 different characters, licensing numerous franchises from The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Looney Tunes, Marvel, Disney, and also creating their own, such as PEZ Pals.
With its skyrocketing popularity, PEZ sought to expand its North American operations by manufacturing candies in the United States. Yet a new location had to be within a “reasonable commuting distance” for an executive who lived in Larchmont, N.Y., according to Shawn Peterson, Direct to Consumer Business Manager for PEZ in an email to yours truly. Meanwhile, PEZ had purchased a facility in Norwalk, but converting it into a candy manufacturing plant became too expensive.
So where would PEZ set up shop? In stepped Roger W. Boyd, a resident of Orange.
Boyd was chairman of Orange’s Economic Development Commission. In 1972, he had been on a “reverse trade mission trying to find European companies that wanted to manufacture in the U.S. and entice them to set up operations in New England,” according to Peterson. While on the trip in Vienna, Boyd met and befriended Eduard Haas IV and Consul, the sons of PEZ’s founder. Using his international connections, Boyd pitched his hometown and, eventually, brokered a land deal for a PEZ facility on a former orchard. The company was persuaded.
On Nov. 19, 1973, PEZ broke ground on the site, and opened its doors two years later.
12 Million Tablets…a Day!
Since the 1970s, PEZ has called Connecticut its home in America.
The Orange facility is instrumental in the company’s output, producing 12 million candy tablets each day. It also packages and distributes dispensers for the United States and Canada.
In 2011, the company opened the PEZ Visitor Center that houses nearly a century’s worth of memorabilia, the largest dispenser in the world, and a PEZ motorcycle, among other displays. Additionally, visitors can see how the iconic candy is made — which involves a five-step process and 3,000 pounds of force to shape them into their final form.
Yours truly visited the center several years ago, and can attest to the wide array of colorful dispensers and other treats (and no, I did not fight over PEZ Easter Eggs like some too eager enthusiasts years back).
When diving into its history, one can appreciate how the tiny, flavored brick candy has — as PEZ succinctly suggests — become a “staple of American culture,” and one that’s available in more than 90 countries worldwide.
Connecticut’s role in the brand’s legacy is perhaps something we might take for granted. Our state is sustained by businesses — both large and small — that are vital to people’s everyday lives. It’s why Yankee Institute hosted the “Let Connecticut Work!” Conference this past October and will again later this year (stay tuned for more information!): to create an environment where this state can become a hub for industry and for families to call home.
Ultimately, Connecticut needs to be a place for good, peaceful living. For PEZ, that good means bringing temporal and nostalgic joy to generations of children and adults alike.
Let’s hope more dreams are built right here in Connecticut, where more “PEZing” is allowed.
Till next time —
Your Yankee Doodle Dandy,
A special thanks to Shawn Peterson from PEZ for his insights. If you want a more in-depth history about the famous candy, check out his book, “PEZ: From Austrian Invention to American Icon.”
Meanwhile, this author’s favorite candy happens to be Kit Kats, but I did get an Elf PEZ dispenser this past Christmas from Santa, which I appreciated. However, with Lent beginning on Valentine’s Day, I’ll have to hold off any candy eating until Easter. What’s your favorite candy?
And what neat history do you have in your town? Send it to yours truly and I may end up highlighting it in a future edition of ‘Hidden in the Oak.’ Please encourage others to follow and subscribe to our newsletters and podcast, ‘Y CT Matters.’