PEZ: 92 years and counting

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Softhead Superheroes, late 1970s, no feet. The heads on these dispensers are made of a soft eraser-like material and usually found only on stems marked "Made in the USA." These are very popular with collectors. Characters in the series include: Batman, Penguin, Wonder Woman, Joker, and Batgirl. Value: $150-$200 each. Left to right: Batman, Penguin, Wonder Woman, Joker, and Batgirl. All images from the Collector's Guide to PEZ Identification & Price Guide, 3rd Edition.

Invented in 1948, the PEZ dispenser has been around for 60 years. The candy itself has an even longer history dating back some 20 years prior to this event. In 1927, PEZ candy was introduced in Vienna, Austria, as what could possibly be the world’s first-ever breath mint. The company marked its 80th anniversary as a brand in 2008.

Edward Haas, an avid non-smoker, wanted to create an item for consumption that would be used as an alternative to smoking. His product—a small compressed sugar tablet with fine peppermint oil—was just the item he was looking for. The mints he created were sold in small pocket-sized tins (similar to the Altoid brand mints of today) and marketed as an alternative to smoking. His slogan was “smoking prohibited—pezzing allowed!” But what is “pezzing,” or better yet, PEZ?

The name “PEZ” was derived from the German word for peppermint, “pfefferminz.” Using the first, middle, and last letter of the word, Haas came up with the name “PEZ.” Nearly 20 years after the candy was created, in 1948, Oscar Uxa invented and patented a little mechanical box for dispensing the candy. Resembling a cigarette lighter, the dispenser offered a hygienic way to share the candy without the risk of having someone else’s fingers in your candy tin. This new PEZ “box” invention was quickly marketed as an upscale adult product and had moderate success throughout Europe. In 1952-53 Haas and company decided to expand the product to the American consumer. In the span of less than two years, it looked as though PEZ was not going to be a viable product for the U.S. market.

Haas did not give up, and the company decided to reinvent the product. They added fruit flavors to the candy and a three-dimensional cartoon head to the top of the dispenser, and marketed the product to children. What a success this turned out to be, combining two of kids’ favorite things: candy and a toy! The shift proved to be a brilliant move, making PEZ one of the most recognizable commercial names around today.

It is believed the Full body Santa, Full body Robot, and 1950s space gun were the first dispensers marketed toward children. Due to high production and material cost (and slow sales) this group was discontinued after only a couple of short years. The witch “A” is thought to be the first “traditional” dispenser with a head and stem as we know them today. There has been much debate over the years as to who was the first licensed character to grace the top of a dispenser. However, evidence points to Popeye being the first closely followed by Harvey Comic’s Casper the Ghost and Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

It is hard to say how many different heads have graced the top of a PEZ dispenser. Different versions of the same character have been produced and, in some cases, the same version has come in multiple color variations. Conservative estimates put the number from 500-600 different heads produced so far.

At any given time there are as many as 20-30 different dispensers available at local retailers, not to mention the seasonal offerings that appear for such holidays as Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and Valentines Day. PEZ began offering limited edition dispensers marketed towards collectors in 1998. Remakes of the classic Psychedelic Hand and Flower were the first to be offered and proved quite popular. Special editions, available only through the PEZ Candy Inc. Web site, continue to expand and offer collectors more choices and varieties.

PEZ the company is divided into two separate entities, PEZ USA and PEZ International. PEZ USA was located in New York City for the first 20 years of operation. The company expanded and relocated to Orange, Conn., in 1973. Those facilities remained largely unchanged until 2006 when a new warehouse area was added and the front of the building and office area were updated. PEZ USA manufactures the candy, packages the dispensers, distributes and markets the brand throughout North America. PEZ International, now located in Linz, Austria, handles the marketing, manufacturing, and distribution for the rest of the world.

Although they are separately managed companies, they communicate with each other and sometimes work together to produce new dispensers. Functioning as two separate companies explains why some dispensers commonly found in the United States are not found anywhere else in the world, and vise versa.

PEZ Candy Inc. is a privately owned business and does not release sales figures to the public. They acknowledge, however, that more candy packs are sold per year than there are kids in the United States. Their staff works in three shifts, 24 hours a day, producing the candy and packaging dispensers to try and keep up with the ever increasing demand.

The dispenser itself has seen a few modest changes over the years. One of the biggest happened in the late 1980s when “feet” where added to the bottom of the dispenser base to give it more stability when standing upright. Numerous candy and fruit flavors have been produced over the years. Some flavors were more popular than others, and some were just plain strange like chlorophyll, flower, and eucalyptus.

Although PEZ has a long history, it hasn’t always been a hot collectible. PEZ collecting has been gathering steam since the early 1990s when the first guidebook appeared depicting all known dispensers and listing their rarity. The first ever PEZ convention was held in Mentor, Ohio, on Saturday, June 15, 1991. Several other conventions around the country soon followed, and collectors finally had the chance to meet each other, buy and sell PEZ, and view rare and unusual dispensers on display. Conventions have quickly become must-attend events for addicted collectors, drawing people from all over the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan—making PEZ truly an international phenomenon.

In 1993, the prestigious Christie’s auction house in New York took notice of this evolving hobby and held its first ever pop culture auction featuring PEZ. The auction realized record prices, taking the hobby to a new level. PEZ has been featured in countless magazines, television shows, and news articles—landing on the cover of Forbes magazine in December of 1993. The popular “Seinfeld” television show even had an episode featuring a Tweety Bird PEZ dispenser. All of this notoriety has benefited the hobby. More and more people have begun to collect these cute character pieces, sending prices into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars for a single dispenser.

PEZ has done very little in the way of advertising, relying on impulse purchases and parents buying for their kids on a nostalgic whim. While this may not seem like the best marketing method, the company claims it can barely keep up with demand. PEZ is a very popular licensee, with companies vying to put the PEZ name on everything from clocks to coffee mugs.

No one can say for sure where this hobby will go, or if the dispensers will continue to hold their value. In the nearly 20 years that I have been a collector, prices, as well as the collector base, have grown steadily. At present, the hobby has two things in its favor; current demand is surpassing the supply of vintage dispensers, and the fact that PEZ is still produced today makes it available to a whole new generation of potential collectors.

Today you can find PEZ in almost any grocery store, discount store, or chain retailer. With new dispensers added regularly, the continued popularity and success of PEZ is almost certainly assured.

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Crazy Fruit Series
Mid-1970s, No Feet

The Orange first appeared in the mid-1970s, followed by the Pear and Pineapple in the late 1970s. The Pineapple is the hardest of the three to find, followed by the Pear, then the Orange. The Lemon was made as a production sample but never produced.

Orange:     $200-$250
Pear:         $600-$700
Pineapple:     $2,500-$3,000
Lemon:     $5,000+

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Psychedelic Hand, Late 1960s, No Feet

The Hand also came packaged with flower flavor candy, and will have at least one sticker. The side that has the sticker will be completely smooth. Some dispensers had stickers on both sides and are considered to be worth a bit more than a one-sticker dispenser.

A collector’s edition remake was produced in the late 1990s and was only available through a PEZ mail-in offer. The remake versions have the raised PEZ logo on both sides of the stem and do not have stickers on either side. They are also marked with a copyright symbol and 1967—the originals do not have a date on them.

Original:         $200-$250
Original, Black hand:     $250-$350
Remake, m.o.c.:     $3-$5
Misfits Pink or Yellow:    $30-$40
Silver or Gold:     $80-$100

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Political Animals Elephant and Donkey, No Feet

This is an extremely rare dispenser, only a few are known to exist. It is thought to represent the elephant of the Republican political party. In early 1997 a file was discovered in the PEZ factory in Connecticut containing a press release and an old photo of a special set of dispensers. The press release was dated June 13, 1961, and had the heading “President Kennedy receives PEZ souvenirs on his visit to Vienna.” It went on to detail the set and then said, “To the President of the United States of America J.F. Kennedy with the Compliments of PEZ.” The set contained in a wooden, cigar like box had three dispensers; a Donkey for the President (to represent the Democratic Party), a Golden Glow for Jackie, a Bozo die-cut for Caroline, and three packs of candy for each. In 2006, the Donkey that was pictured in this set surfaced. It was found at the PEZ International headquarters in Linz, Austria. To date, it is the only Donkey known to exist. The elephant is one of several known. This elephant example has a shiny golden colored head with his trunk extending over the top of his head.

Elephant:    $6,000+
Donkey:    $10,000+

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collector's guide to pezCollector’s Guide to PEZ, Identification and Price Guide, 3rd Edition
By Shawn Peterson

Price: $24.99

Available at www.krausebooks.com

More Images:

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Wonder Woman, first released late 1970s. The dispenser on the left is the raised star version.
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Crazy Fruit Series Mid-1970s, No Feet
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Psychedelic Hand Late 1960s, No Feet
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Extremely rare Political Animals Elephant and Donkey No Feet
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Late 1920s advertisement. This may be the oldest known ad showing the round PEZ drops.
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This PEZ pair was created by the AWL (Animal Welfare League) of Sydney, Australia, in 2005 to help animals of Hurricane Katrina. Two thousand pairs were created, and proceeds supported "Paws of the Storm." Value: $20-$25 each.

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