In 1927 Austria, Eduard Haas III invented the brick candy, taking the Pez name from three letters in the German word “pfefferminz” (which means peppermint). He marketed the little guys toward adult smokers, and originally, they were carried around the Eastern Bloc in small pocket tins.
But in 1948, the first dispensers saw the light of day – designed to look like cigarette lighters and billed as an ‘easy and hygienic’ way to carry the brick mints. Incidentally, in Pez lexicon today, these early headless dispensers are called ‘regulars’.
Pez dispensers arrived in America in 1952, and to make the kids happy, fruit-flavoured candy replaced the peppermints, and brightly coloured noggins began to top the dispensers. Tilt that noggin back, and a candy brick would spring to the top. And when all the bricks had been gobbled up, reinforcements could be purchased.
Grape, lemon, orange and strawberry were the flavour choices available stateside. Cherry could be purchased in Canada and Europe – American kids found it uncomfortably reminiscent of cough syrup!
There’s chocolate in Hungary and Thailand, raspberry and apple in Spain, and the not-so-invitingly named IZO Pez, which is vitamin fortified and available in countries where kids aren’t yet hip to the fact that nutrition and all things confectionary should never mix. There was also a time that brands like anise, coffee, eucalyptus and flower graced the market, but thankfully, they reside today at that quaint little Flavour Retirement Home in the sky.
Pez built an American warehouse and manufacturing facility in 1973 in Orange, Connecticut. It churns out products twenty-four hours a day, because when a factory moves a billion packages of candy a year and has dozens of different dispenser models out on the shelves at any one time – there’s no such thing as quittin’ time.
In 1987, a few dispensers with plastic feet ambled onto the Pez scene – a point in Pez chronology that separates the vintage dispensers from the modern. There are collectors out there who snub their noses at appendaged dispensers, but others like a little variety in their plastic menageries.
Santa, Mickey Mouse and the Flintstones are some of the line’s bestsellers, but among the over three hundred dispenser incarnations, you’d be hard-pressed not to find one to adore. There are soft head and rubber head varieties – introduced in 1978 – circling out in collectorland, as well as porcelain editions.
There are websites galore, collectors conventions, even a museum in Burlingame, California – all devoted to the little pillars of joy.
Maybe there’s some kind of powdered elixir in the candies, some magical ingredient that keeps us bowed down in faithful Pez worship. Maybe not. Maybe it’s just that the dispensers, with their perfect blend of kitsch and retro flair, look pretty good on your shelf.