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10 Indispensable Facts about PEZ

PEZ hit the height of its American popularity in the '80s and '90s, but this dispensable candy is much older than that. These small, sugar candies have a longer history than you might know.

1. PEZ WERE ORIGINALLY ANTI-SMOKING MINTS.

Austrian inventor and businessman Eduard Haas III came up with the idea for PEZ in 1927. Haas came from a wealthy family of doctors and retailers, and as an anti-smoking advocate, he decided the small mints could help those trying to kick cigarettes. The 30-year-old Haas hired a chemist to perfect a cold-press process that would quickly and cheaply compress peppermint oil and sugar into peppermints. As for the now recognizable name, the mints were named for the German spelling of peppermint—"pfefferminz"—nabbing three letters to make PEZ.

2. THE FIRST PEZ WERE ROUND.

It took some time for Haas to figure out the best way to produce and package his PEZ mints. The first versions were called PEZ Drops, and were round candies wrapped in rolls. But, Haas soon determined that packaging the round candies was a pain, so he and his chemist partner sought out a new shape: the rectangular PEZ. The new shape was easy for machines to wrap, and helped keep PEZ production inexpensive. By the 1930s, PEZ appeared in metal tins that could easily be tucked into coat pockets or purses. Actual dispensers for Haas’ cessation mint wouldn’t be seen until after World War II.

3. VINTAGE PEZ ADS WERE RACY.

Because PEZ was originally intended to help adult smokers kick the habit, its advertisements targeted an older demographic. And to do that, they featured bosomy pinup girls hawking mints. At the same time, PEZ were marketed as an edible for the elite, called "the mint of the noble society," and as an anti-smoking tool ("Smoking prohibited—PEZing allowed!"). By the time PEZ made their way to the United States in the 1950s, the pinup ads were dropped for more child-friendly marketing.

4. AN EASY-TO-USE DISPENSER WAS A BIG COMPANY GOAL.

By the 1940s, Haas came up with a new idea for PEZ sales: a mint dispenser. The confectioner turned to inventor Oscar Uxa, and by 1948, the first PEZ dispenser was created. Uxa’s design, called a Box Regular, was shaped like a lighter as part of Haas’ anti-smoking theme, and utilized springs to push mints out. Its flip-top could be opened with one hand, which was important to Haas; the original patent stated that the one-hand opening was “important not only for persons having only one hand but also persons who often have only one hand free (for example motor-vehicle drivers), or whose occupation causes their hands to become smeared with dirt.”

5. PEZ DIDN'T APPEAR IN THE U.S. UNTIL THE 1950S.

In 1953, PEZ took a chance in American markets, though it initially didn’t find much interest. The peppermint flavor didn’t stand out, pushing Haas Food Manufacturing to rethink its mint. PEZ tablets were retooled with fruit flavors and new packaging to appeal to an entirely different audience: children.

6. DISPENSERS FOR KIDS BECAME A BIG HIT.

As part of PEZ marketing in the U.S., Haas realized that making the candy dispensers into toys could boost sales. The first child-oriented dispensers came in three shapes: a full-bodied Santa Claus, a full-bodied robot and a space gun (which shot candy out of the muzzle). In 1962, PEZ entered a new level of dispenser marketing by pairing with Walt Disney Studios. Even with fierce competition from Mickey Mouse, PEZ’s Santa dispenser (released in 1955) remains a top-selling dispenser. Because of the toy and candy combination, PEZ is considered the first interactive candy, and has more than 1500 different dispensers.

7. MAKING PEZ IS A HIGH-PRESSURE JOB.

That’s because the raw ingredients in PEZ candy undergo 3000 pounds of pressure to become the tiny tablets. Every package of PEZ has only 12 candies, which explains why they seems to disappear so quickly. PEZ dispensers are made in China, Slovenia and Austria, then shipped to the world’s only PEZ candy factory in Orange, Conn. There, candy and toy dispensers are paired up and packaged.

8. EVER WANTED TO TASTE PLANT-FLAVORED PEZ?

At one point in time, it was possible, because PEZ offered chlorophyll-flavored candies. Other specialty PEZ flavors have included licorice, coffee, cola and pineapple. And peppermint PEZ has also made a comeback. Since PEZ is sold in 60 countries, flavors can vary; popular peach isn’t available in the U.S.

9. REAL PEOPLE HAVE BECOME PEZ DISPENSERS.

PEZ often features fictional characters and animals on its dispensers, which has led to the belief that real people can’t appear on the collectible dispensers. Not true! Contrary to popular belief, several real-life people have graced the tops of PEZ poppers. In 1976, Betsy Ross, Paul Revere and Daniel Boone were on Bicentennial Commemorative PEZ dispensers; several U.S. presidents have been featured, as well as the members of KISS. Still, the selection of real people PEZ dispensers isn’t large because the company is selective; recent requests for Kim Kardashian and personalized dispensers just aren’t happening.

10. PEZ COLLECTION MANIA DIDN'T START UNTIL THE 1990s.

While PEZ were popular among Baby Boomer children and '80s kids, it wasn’t until the 1990s that dispenser collecting became big business. PEZheads (the self-proclaimed title for PEZ collectors) created a collecting frenzy where prices for vintage dispensers skyrocketed. During the PEZ rush in 1994, dealer John Devlin said that PEZ prior to the '90s were traded like baseball cards instead of being sold. “People used to say, ‘I’ll give you two dispensers for your one.’” Vintage PEZ dispenser prices skyrocketed, and some collectors even created counterfeits to cash in on the trend. Who knew a small mint meant for smokers could become a national craze?

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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