PEZ originally marketed as smoking cessation aid

Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating history of PEZ candy, in which I learned that it was originally created and marketed in Austria in the 1920s as aid to quitting smoking.

The creator, Eduard Haas III, was an early anti-smoking advocate …

An anti-smoking advocate, Haas III wanted to create a tablet that would "not only refresh one's breath but could also help consumers who were anxious to cut down on smoking or overeating," writes Shawn Peterson, company historian at PEZ Candy, Inc., in PEZ: From Austrian Invention to American Icon.

Strong peppermint flavoring seemed like just the trick, but peppermint oil was expensive and primarily used in pharmacies. Peppermint-flavored products were usually made by boiling ingredients, which wasted peppermint flavoring because it evaporated in the heat. So Haas Company chemists developed a tablet manufacturing process that's cold. PEZ tablets are made by compressing confectionary sugar and flavoring with thousands of pounds of force until each brick holds together. The candies didn't originally come in dispensers but were instead packaged in metal tins or foil-paper wrapping. [snip]

The first PEZ candies, called PEZ Drops, were marketed as a luxury item for adults. Advertisements touted health benefits and showed couples about to kiss with the caption, "Deliciously fresh breath!" Early ads proclaimed, "No smoking, PEZing allowed!"

And, as for those iconic containers with the heads?

It took a long while to develop them. For the first twenty years, PEZ was sold in a regular candy wrapper. It wasn't until the late 40s that Haas wanted to offer customers "a quick way to pick out a tablet with one hand, or share with a friend without dirtying the candies in the tin". He hired engineer Oscar Uxa to create the famous dispenser (pictured above, from their US patent filing).

The dispenser were a huge hit, particularly amongst drivers, because they let you easily decant a candy into youth mouth one-handedly. In fact PEZ marketed this driver-friendly aspect with ads like this …

But when Haas introduced PEZ to the US, the anti-smoking message flopped. So instead they pivoted to selling the candy to kids, which meant issuing PEZ in the now-familiar fruit flavors, and developing dispensers with character heads.

So, American's desire to keep on smokin' is what gave us this wonderful evolution of PEZ-heads! I love it. The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward weirdness. Sometimes marketplace forces give us the good stuff.

They initially overdesigned things, though, creating full-body costumes for the dispensers — and guns that allowed children to shoot each other with PEZ, because why not — but these were too hard/expensive to manufacture at scale, so they had to pare things down to just the ornamental heads. Which, again, is a constraint that turned out to propel some genius design: When placed on the same regularized canister, the heads fairly pop with idiosyncracy — figure on a ground:

In 1955, at the urging of vice president of U.S. operations Curtis Allina, PEZ introduced its first character-shaped dispensers—a robot and Santa Claus. Today, Santa Claus is PEZ's best-selling design.

Different from modern dispensers, the first character PEZ dispensers had full-body designs, with a full red suit for Santa Claus and all the metal-looking nuts and bolts on the robot. In 1956, PEZ released a space gun-shaped dispenser that shot out fruit-flavored tablets. The complex dispensers were expensive to manufacture. At five-times the cost of a normal candy bar, they sold poorly.

"The Santa and robot dispensers had internal parts and glue seams and used a lot of plastic," writes Peterson. "Space gun assembly was labor-intensive and also used a lot of expensive plastic. Assembly would have to be mechanized; cost to manufacture would need to be reduced."

PEZ adjusted again and created a new toy-like dispenser that struck a balance between the original regulars and the character designs: a character head on top, and a rectangular body that held the candy underneath. The first PEZ dispenser with this anatomy was a witch introduced at Halloween in 1957. The next year, the company struck gold with its first licensing deal for a Popeye dispenser.

There's a lot more in that piece, including some amazing pictures and reprints of the anti-smoking ads — go read the whole thing! It also makes me want to get a copy of the book that piece is based on, PEZ: From Austrian Invention to American Icon.