Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PEZ, The Ultimate In Low-Tech Iconic

Vintage PEZIs it candy or is it a gadget? If you ask PEZ Candy, Inc., it's candy. But if you ask collectors, they’ll say it's a gadget.

They are simple, elegant, low-tech candy gadgets. PEZ has a long and interesting history. It made its debut 83 years ago as a peppermint in Vienna, Austria. That's how inventor Eduard Haas III came up with a name for his candy. PEZ is an abbreviation of sorts of the German word for peppermint: pfefferminz.

Haas had a purpose and so did his candy.

Haas was not a fan of smoking and he envisioned PEZ as a substitute for lighting up, with the added hygienic factor of a dispenser that could hold the candies. His original dispenser, which looks an awful lot like a cigarette lighter, is known by collectors around the world as a “regular.”

As a candy, it did well enough. Haas was able to expand into the U.S. market, figuring children would be a good target market. But in order to capture their attention, he needed to evolve his product. The first evolution was changing the flavor of the candy from peppermint to fruit flavors. And the next was making the dispenser look more like toys.

The earliest creations feature characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost. But the idea really took off in the 1960s after PEZ struck an agreement with Walt Disney to use characters such as Mickey Mouse on the dispensers.

A myth and the magic of PEZ.

It used to be that PEZ would never make character heads that were based on real people. But there were some exceptions. The first few included Betsy Ross, Daniel Boone and Paul Revere, made in the 1970s to celebrate the bicentennial. They didn't look anything like their namesakes, but nobody really knew or cared.

In recent years, PEZ has added a few figures that enthrall some audiences. The likeness of Elvis, the dudes from Orange County Choppers, and all the characters from the Wizard of Oz, among them. But the next evolution wasn't about the heads as much as something else.

In 1989, PEZ added what are known as “feet” to the dispensers. The little tabs on the bottom of the dispensers were designed to make them more stable. Some flavors were also retired. Favorites such as apple, lime and less popular flavors like coffee are all gone. But the retiring of a few flavors hasn't slowed production or fan appreciation.

Some quick stats on PEZ production.

The PEZ plant in Orange, Connecticut, operates 24 hours a day. More than 3 billion candy "bricks" are eaten in the United States every year. It's anyone's guess how many are eaten worldwide. You can do the math if you like. More than 65 million dispensers are sold every year, all manufactured overseas.

Captain HookThe reason PEZ became an iconic collectible is simple enough. More than 1,000 different dispensers have been made over the years and some were produced in painfully limited runs. Having a rare PEZ dispenser or one people could readily identify with makes them magical enough to appear from time to time in movies and television shows, including one unforgettable moment on Seinfeld.

The rarest of them all, of course, are now worth thousands of dollars. One dispenser recently sold on eBay for more than $6,200. It's one of the reasons collectors continue to seek out any hard-to-find and “misfit” dispensers for their collections while watching for new heads to roll off the assembly lines.

PEZ Clicks In With A Perfect 9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

One of the better finds in recent years was Warman's PEZ Field Guide: Values & Identification (Warman's Field Guides Pez: Values & Identification) from Amazon. The second edition by Shawn Peterson is perhaps one of the best books for values and identification. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble.

You can learn more about the Haas family here. From time to time, you can also find special collections on sites like Amazon. Currently, Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs Pez Gift Set is available. So are PEZ Sourz Candy Refills and PEZ Cola Candy Refills. And the official PEZ site is the best place to keep track of what's next.
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