While PEZ is today known as an American icon, it began as a simple breath mint in Austria. Today, thousands of people worldwide collect PEZ dispensers and merchandise, and there is an international community for buying, trading, and selling all things PEZ. To give you an introduction to PEZ collecting, we’ve gathered some of our best tips, lingo, and history for the aspiring PEZ collector.
A Brief History of the PEZ Candy
Invented in Austria by Eduard Haas III in the 1920s, the original PEZ candy was not actually a candy at all, but a peppermint breath mint. While today PEZ is marketed as a children’s toy, it was originally introduced by Haas as an alternative to smoking, as he was an ardent non-smoker. The original PEZ created by Haas also were not held in the iconic character dispensers, but instead were in either a tin (similar to today’s Altoids), or a plain, rectangular dispenser with a flip top.
PEZ mints were popular throughout Austria at the time of their creation, leading Haas to attempt to further capitalize on this success by attempting to expand into the American market. Unfortunately, Haas’ first few years on the US market did not go as well as planned, and by 1954 it looked as if Haas’ newest venture would fail. However, Haas was not one to give up: The original PEZ breath mint was quickly reformulated to include fruit flavors, and the company added the now iconic character heads to their dispensers in 1955. With this rebranding, Haas marketed PEZ as a candy and children’s toy – a decision that would prove genius, as PEZ quickly took off in the American market. Today, PEZ is as well known for its dispensers as its candy, with over 1500 unique dispensers in the company’s collection, and an avid community of collectors with a language and culture all their own.
The PEZ Lingo
There are a few words within the PEZ community that you should know before jumping in. Here are some of the basic terms you might hear from an experienced PEZ collector:
- Stem: The stem is the rectangular bottom portion of a PEZ dispenser, which holds the PEZ candy. In some cases a dispenser may have a full body stem, which will be a full-featured molded body, rather than the standard rectangular piece.
- Head: The decorative piece of the dispenser, which usually features a character or public figure.
Regulars: The first PEZ mint dispensers, which were rectangular-box-shaped dispensers with a simple flip top for dispensing candy.
- Vintage Dispensers: A dispenser that was most likely produced prior to 1980, vintage PEZ dispensers are identified by their lack of “feet,” but still having a character head.
- Modern Dispensers: Most likely produced from 1980 to the present, a modern PEZ dispenser can be identified by possessing both a character head and dispenser feet.
- “Floppy Head” Dispensers: A dispenser whose spring is broken or no longer engaged, causing the character head to open when tipped back. While some people will call any dispenser that opens without being engaged a floppy head dispenser, some top-heavy dispensers will open simply due to physics.
- Alignment: A term used to describe how easily a dispenser functions. Some older dispensers will not work as precisely as a modern dispenser – this doesn’t mean that it’s a bad dispenser; it just reflects that it may have been manufactured with less care at the time of its creation.
- Injection Mold Codes (IMC): A code, located on the stem of a dispenser, which indicates which country a stem was produced in. Currently, there are four countries that produce PEZ products, but there are many IMC codes for countries that no longer manufacture PEZ. These codes will typically contain one number to indicate the country or origin, though there are some rarer dispensers produced in Austria that have a dual IMC code.
The Do’s and Don’ts’ of PEZ Collecting
While ingratiating yourself into the PEZ community can be confusing if you haven’t collected dispensers before, there are some general guidelines that are good to follow. First, you should consider your budget for collecting – how much are you willing to spend? Is there a certain group of dispensers you’d like to focus on? Answering these questions will allow you to not only help focus your collecting, but also shop within your means as you search for dispensers. If you’re brand-new to PEZ collecting, consider building your collection with modern pieces first. In doing so, you’ll be able to build up a considerable collection quickly without breaking the bank. You should also remember that you can collect more than just dispensers! PEZ has vintage advertisements, candy packs, and other licensed products that collectors will often search for. Ad sheets in particular can be incredibly valuable because they were only distributed to people in the PEZ business, like salesman and dealers, rather than being made available to the general public.
There is also a good deal of debate over whether or not you should remove a dispenser from its packaging. In this case, the general rule of thumb is to leave an older dispenser as is. Besides being worth more, the dispenser will also be better preserved if it is left in its original intended packaging. When it comes to more modern dispensers, however, the choice is up to you: Are you going to display your dispenser, or are you looking to trade? While modern dispensers may also be worth more left in their packaging, they can be displayed more easily when opened, so the choice is yours.
Lastly, it is not advisable to buy a PEZ dispenser that has been altered in any way from its original design. While replacing broken parts of a dispenser is often acceptable within the community, the broken part must be replaced with the exact same piece, even down to the IMC on the stem. If there has been any mixing of parts from a different dispenser, its alignment may be negatively affected, and it will therefore be valued less within the community when up for sale.
The PEZ Collecting Community
Because PEZ has become such a notable part of American pop culture, there is a large community of American PEZ collectors. However, the community extends internationally, and collectors can be found all over the world. While many of these collectors are casual hobbyists, there are some who have amassed gigantic collections topping 17,000 pieces. Many of these collectors will come together at PEZ conventions held around the country to bond over their shared hobby, and to get a chance to buy or sell their dispensers to other collectors. The biggest of these conventions, Pezamania, has been in operation for nearly 30 years, and is the largest international gathering of PEZ collectors.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of PEZ and its founder, you can also visit the PEZ Visitor Center, which was opened in Orange, Connecticut in 2011. Since its opening, the center has welcomed over 300,000 visitors and counting. Today, members of the PEZ community can also be found widely on the internet, as collectors trade amongst themselves internationally to grow and improve their personal collections.
If you’d like to read more about PEZ history and collecting, check out our book PEZ: From Austrian Invention to American Icon to learn more about the history behind a distinctive American icon.