PEZ: More Than Candy in a Box

What do Austria, Seinfeld, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Connecticut, the Walt Disney Company, and the creator of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, have in common? The question may be a bit of a stretch so I'll let you in on the answer: Pez dispensers.

Pez dispensers, one of the hottest collectibles of the 21st century, each year dispense about 3.5 billion miniature brick-sized fruit-flavoured peppermint candies in North America alone. That mind-boggling number will give you some idea of the popularity of these containers with their cartoon character heads. And the candies in these dispensers enjoy a unique origin: They were initially concocted in Austria as a substitute for cigarette smoking. But, more importantly, the containers housing these candies are worth more than their contents.

Some of the older, hard-to-find Pez dispensers sell in excess of $5,000 although most have a much lower price tag. For example, recent-vintage dispensers sell in the single digit dollar range. That makes the hobby affordable for collectors on limited budgets. Typical retailers or antiques dealers such as The Waterloo County Antique Warehouse in Waterloo, Ontario, with an extensive Pez selection sell dispensers costing as little as $5 or less but also in a range between $50 and $100. A dispenser with a Santa head, manufactured in Austria is priced at $69 as is a similar-era Valentine's Day container featuring a red, heart-shaped top that snaps back to pop out a miniature brick candy.

Pez dispensers featuring the heads of popular cartoon characters, toy trucks or cars, watches, footballs, handguns, or imitation fountain pens decorated with images of animals, astronauts, policemen and similar artwork, have been on the market for about a half-century.

But there is another somewhat older category of Pez containers that is of equal interest to connoisseurs of memorabilia. Those earlier dispensers are known by collectors as "regulars" because they do not have the familiar cartoon character heads that were introduced in the early 1950s. These "regular" dispensers, frequently resembling a box-like configuration reminiscent a cigarette lighter, date back several years earlier when the peppermint candy itself was the item of interest to consumers rather than the dispensers that housed them.

The original peppermint candy owes its existence to Austrian businessman Edward Haas who invented the world's first breath mint in 1927 as an alternative to cigarette smoking. He named his invention Pez, a contraction of the German word Pfefferminz by taking the word's first, middle, and last letters. It started off as a peppermint candy without the fruit flavour that was added later. Haas, a zealous non-smoker, used as the sales slogan "Smoking prohibited, Pezzing allowed" but, unlike other non-smokers of his day, he decided to do something about the smoking habit that he considered unwholesome and unhealthy. His candy creations have withstood the test of time as after more than three-quarters of a century people in more than 60 countries still pop the bite-sized peppermint candies onto their tongues on a regular basis although nowadays it is as much for the candy's taste as for an alternative to cigarettes.

As an anti-smoking product, Haas's peppermint candies were obviously not intended for children. Targeting the children's market for his candy came about twenty-five years later when market research revealed that adding fruit flavours to the peppermint candy, and packaging it in a dispenser with a cartoon character plastic head, would appeal to youngsters. After all, what could be more of a sure-fire success than a product that combined a toy and candy?

While Pez candy has been in existence for over three-quarters of a century, collecting Pez dispensers is a relatively new hobby. It is only in the last 10 or so years that Pez collecting has really taken off in a big way. Given the popularity of the Seinfeld television show, where the Pez dispenser featuring the Tweety-bird character made a guest appearance with the candy mistaken for birth control pills and accompanied by dialogue such as "Viagara popped like Pez" or "popping out babies like a Pez dispenser," it should not be surprising that Pez collecting endeared itself to a new generation of enthusiasts.

And the big silver screen has been equally helpful in spreading the Pez collecting gospel. In the movie "Stand by Me", based on a Stephen King novel, one of the actors is adamant that the one nourishment he would never be without is Pez. Pez dispensers have also appeared in other top-rated movies such as "The Client" and "E.T. The Extraterrestrial."

Nor is the music business left out of "Pezmania." Lead singer Steven Tyler of the Rock band Aerosmith has been quoted as stating that his favourite Pez idols are the Tasmanian devil and cherry Pez. Needless to say, in addition to the line-up of traditional cartoon characters that have appeared on television and in movies, the Pez corporation, located in Orange, Connecticut, has created numerous characters of its own. Included in the company's current line-up of characters are such names as "Mr. Ugly and friends", "Pez Pals", "Pez-A-SAURS", "Pez-N-Pets," and "Pez Circus Characters."

Of the nearly 300 different Pez heads decorating the tops of the candy dispensers, it is difficult to pick the most popular although Christmas and Disney-theme characters seem to be near the top judging by their numbers appearing on the resale market. Perhaps that is not surprising. Who could muster more public support than Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse? What character was the first to appear on a Pez dispenser? "No one is quite sure but it might have been Popeye," says David Waddilove, a toy expert and vendor at The Waterloo County Antique Warehouse "In any case, it was a Walt Disney cartoon character," added the toy enthusiast.

The original Pez candy was sold in small tins that individuals carried around with them on their person but Haas had grander ideas for his Pfefferminz candies. To expand his candy-making business the Viennese entrepreneur decided to operate a manufacturing plant in the Unites States. In 1952 he opened a candy factory in New York where he conducted extensive research and almost immediately launched his fruit flavoured candy. The four initial flavours were cherry, orange, lemon, and strawberry. But fearing that children, who by this time had become an important segment of the Pez market, would associate his candy with the cherry-flavoured cough syrup he replaced it with a grape flavour.

In 1970, Pez Candy Incorporated took over the production and sales of candies and dispensers from the Haas Food Manufacturing Corporation. Three years later, the new owners moved the company to Orange, Connecticut, where in 1973 it built the plant it still occupies today although it has doubled in size. Pez collectors are known as Pezheads and it should not come as a surprise that the company's president, Mr. Scott McWhinnie, appointed in 1983, goes by the title of "Pezident." What other title could possibly be more descriptive for the head of Pez Candy Incorporated?

A major change was made to the Pez dispenser design in 1987 when dispensers were given "feet." The redesigned container, no pun intended, could now stand on its own feet. And they have been more than standing on their own feet ever since.

Collectible items as successful as Pez dispensers were destined to attract their share of unsavory individuals and collectors need to guard against fakes. Pez does not produce dispensers with heads of real persons according to Waddilove. With the exception of historical icons such as Paul Revere and Daniel Boone, Pez dispensers are not modeled after real people. Therefore, if you see a likeness of Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley on a Pez dispenser you know they are fakes. Other fake dispensers have heads of Barbie doll, Adolph Hitler, Dr. Spock, and Pee Wee Herman. Collectors know these fakes as Fantasy Pez. They are not in any way related to the Pez Candy Company and should only be collected as such.

As with any pursuit, knowledge is important and time spent in educating oneself about collectibles is the best investment hobbyists can make. Fortunately for collectors of Pez items, they have several aids available.

The most important are the company's patents numbers. In 1968 Pez had the foresight to apply for a patent for its dispensers and the first number it was assigned is Patent 2-620-061. It covered its first dispenser series issued in 1952. Subsequent patent numbers and their corresponding series are as follows: Patent 3-410-455 - 2nd series issued in 1968; Patent 3-845-882 - 3rd series issued in 1974; Patent 3-942-683 - 4th series issued in 1976; Patent 4-966-305 - 5th series issued in 1990

These patent numbers are molded on the bottom left side on the stem of each dispenser and will immediately reveal the approximate age of the item at a glance.

A second tag found on Pez dispensers is the injection mold code. These codes are country specific. That is, they will tell collectors where a specific dispenser was manufactured. The stand-alone, single digit number for all countries except for the former Yugoslavia. It is identified with the letter V and is located toward the top on the right-hand side of the stem as follows:

1 Austria/Hungary

2 Austria/Hong Kong

3 Austria/Hungary

4 Austria

5 Yugoslavia/Slovenia

6 Hong Kong/China

7 Hong Kong/Austria

8 Austria

9 Vermont, Connecticut/U.S.A.

10 Yugoslavia

As might be expected, there is a certain amount of jargon associated with Pez collecting that Pezheads have adopted. For instance, MIB stands for mint in bag dispensers. MOC means a mint on card dispenser and MOMC stands for mint on mint card. Then there is the abbreviation for a dispenser with no feet - NF. And finally, MIW stands for mint in wrapper.

These distinctions are necessary because Pez dispensers are sold in two types of packaging: One is in a small plastic bag and the other is on a slightly larger cardboard card and hard plastic bubble. MIB means the dispenser is mint in the bag, or not opened. MOC means the dispenser is mint on the card, or has not been taken off the card and remains unopened.

It seems that the Pez organization has not overlooked any aspect of its business. It even makes a dietetic candy. As parents of a child with diabetes will know, or adult individuals with diabetes for that matter, diet is one of the cornerstones of managing the diabetic condition and that means a limited amount of sweets. Consuming large quantities of sweets by people with diabetes requires a corresponding amount of additional insulin to treat these "empty" calories and Pez has very adroitly decided to manufacture a sugarless candy. In place of the 9 grams of sugar in each candy brick, the dietetic candy contains the sugarless, calorie-reduced sweetener Sorbitol.

If there are calorie-conscious readers anticipating becoming Pezheads, they might like to know the ingredients for regular Pez candy. The following are ingredients that Pez candy contains: sugar, corn syrup, adipic acid, hydrogenated palm kernel & palm oils & soybean oil mono & diglycerides, natural and artificial flavours and artificial colours in the following amounts:

Serving Size: 1 roll - 12 tablets

Calories: 35

Carbohydrates: (9 grams): 3%

Sugar: (9 grams)

By contrast, the dietetic, sugar-free variety contains 30 calories.

The Pez Candy company releases new dispensers on an ongoing basis and also discontinues certain items that are time sensitive such as the U.S. Bicentennials and the Olympics sets. Other discontinued Pez sets include Circus, Erie Specters, Guns, Monsters, and the Smurfs. According to Pezheads in the know, the most sought-after item is the 1950s Space Gun dispenser. It actually "shot" Pez candies and sells for several hundred dollars regardless of condition.

Because Pez takes obsolete items off the market, it also needs to replace them with new ones on an ongoing basis. Recent dispensers include the Spongebob Squarepants, consisting of four characters, Shrek, and a line of Marvel Superheroes including Spider-man. The latter is actually a re-release to capitalize on the recent release of the popular Spider-man movie.

Fantasy Pez, that is those dispensers manufactured by companies not connected with Pez Candy Incorporated, continue to fill store shelves. New items included in this latter category are Star Wars items such as a 12" Darth Vader and Yoda and a heart-shaped Valentine's Day dispenser. One of the more worthy causes being commemorated is the breast cancer awareness campaign with a couple of new candy dispensers. They feature an attractively designed pink-coloured, stylized heart inscribed "Breast Cancer Awareness."

A number of other organizations, domestic and foreign, including such well-known companies as the Carleton greeting card company, are also in the Pez dispenser business with their line-up of new dispensers.

Astute readers will have noticed that we have now touched on each of the geographic regions, TV shows, and movie titles referred to in the question we posed at the beginning of this article except for one name: Pierre Omidyar. How does he fit into the Pez puzzle? The answer is that Omidyar is the creator of eBay. Omidyar launched the phenomenally successful electronic auction Website to give his then girlfriend, who has since become his wife, greater access to Pez dispensers for her collection.

Although we are not all fortunate enough to have someone design a worldwide auction site to enable us to add to our Pez collection, we can take advantage of the venues already in existence to enjoy a fascinating collectible hobby and become a member of the ever-growing number of Pezheads.

Tony Shaman is a freelance writer and editor of The Canadian Philatelist, the official journal of the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada. He can be contacted at tshaman@rogers.com