On Oct. 25, the PEZ Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut, declared it an early Halloween. In honor of the upcoming holiday, the factory, which doubles as a historical landmark for PEZ enthusiasts, announced that all visitors under the age of 12 who arrived in costume would receive free admission. It was a modest treat, but for the kids in bumblebee suits and hybrid ballerina-fairy outfits — and, perhaps more importantly, for their baby-boomer parents — it was enough.
Tucked away on a hillside road just off of I-95, the factory-cum-museum isn’t immediately distinguishable from the neighboring office buildings: red brick and beige stucco. A parking lot runs along its periphery, not unlike one you might see outside of a Target or a Hobby Lobby. Mousetraps sit prominently near the loading doors, facing outward toward the same parking lot that visitors use.
Besides the traps, the only real hints at the building’s contents are three nine-foot replicas of PEZ candy rolls attached to the far side of the building. Inside, however, the bland exterior gives way to raucous candy-colored decoration.
As a middle-aged gift shop employee named Paola tells me, this factory makes all of the individual PEZ pellets for North America. That means Canada, too, she reminds me as she hands me my yellow visitor’s lanyard. According to Paola, the factory creates about 12 million pellets a day. The only other PEZ candy-making factory is in Austria, homeland of the company’s founder, Eduard Haas.
PEZ is famous today for its collectible cartoon-headed candy dispensers, colorful toys that were once a staple of American childhood. But the company actually made its debut in Europe in the 1920s as an anti-smoking mint for adults. Hence the design of the sleek original dispenser, now called a “Regular.” To reach the mint, you flip the Regular’s top as you would flick open a cigarette lighter.
Haas moved the headquarters of PEZ to America in 1952. Realizing how unsuccessful an anti-smoking mint would be in 1950s America, where the cigarettes had become as ubiquitous as Elvis’s records, Haas began marketing the candy to children. Now, Regulars could be topped with a cartoon head, and voilà: both toy and treat. For PEZ, it was a game changer, opening endless possibilities for PEZ dispensers. There were Disney characters, Olympics mascots, astronauts, faux handguns.
On the lesser-visited second floor of the museum is another side to the company’s history — one with sex appeal.
On the wall hangs a small photo collage: attractive young women dressed in vivid blue costumes stand before suited American men with boxes of PEZ mints. The “PEZ ladies,” as a sign calls them, were vital to the American debut of PEZ, and were a carry-over of Haas’s old sales tactics in Austria. With their hair coiffed and their lips rouged, the PEZ ladies lingered in clubs and malls: A mint for you, sir? It was Mad Men-style marketing in the flesh.
And in print, too: not present on the walls are ads from an even raunchier streak in PEZ’s earliest American marketing campaigns. In one I find in an online collection of vintage ads, a busty blonde reaches languidly, desperately, for PEZ mints held in an unidentified male hand. In another, a pinup girl in a PEZ uniform sits atop an oversized roll of PEZ mints, her thighs exposed. She coyly holds a PEZ mint to her mouth. She doesn’t only want PEZ — she wants you.
But these ads, by the notorious ’50s lingerie-ad man Gerhard Brause, were the end of an era for PEZ rather than the beginning. Haas’s choice to redefine PEZ as a wholesome children’s candy was one that made the brand what it is. And while PEZ is no empire today — the brand survives mainly on its nostalgic value — it is a name that lasts, at least for the kids who were in its targeted audience back in mid-century America.
That Saturday afternoon, more adults came to tour the facility than children. Parents with college-age kids arrived in groups of three or four, pointing out the PEZ dispensers they recognized, or the ads on the first floor that they remembered from the papers. The second floor’s exhibit on the company’s forgotten history, meanwhile, remained empty but for a few employees on their lunch break.
The Visitor Center relies on the cheapest form of advertising there is: nostalgia. It doesn’t exist to entice new customers. Nor does it intend to attract kids, for that matter. One woman complained to her husband that the kids weren’t looking for the scavenger hunt items. Her husband’s advice: Well, let’s just look for ’em you and I, honey.