Pez and the 1950s Children’s Candy Market

January 8, 2010 at 7:21 am Leave a comment

Candy Land observed a moment of silence on December 15, 2009, to mark the passing of Curtis Allina, presumed inventor of the Pez character dispenser. The first Pez marketed for children were full-bodied likenesses of Santa and a robot, in 1955. Pez dispensers were not the first or the only candy toy novelty. But no other candy toy has approached the brilliance of the Pez Head, in its simple appeal and infinite variety.

When Pez came to the U.S. from Austria in the early 1950s, it was as an adult peppermint sold in a suave dispenser that resembled James Bond’s gold cigarette lighter, and shared its sleek cosmopolitan gleam. Such trifles were more successful in Vienna than in Vermont, though, and Pez stumbled in the U.S. market. Then Allina, or someone working for him, had the idea to re-package the mints as fruit-flavored children’s candies. But why did they imagine that marketing candy to children might be a winning bet?

The fact was, no one much noticed those little candy munching kiddies before the 1950s.

Oh, the kids bought candy, to be sure. One or two pennies at a time, hoarded and carefully extracted from a sticky pocket after spending an hour loitering in front of the candy displays. Hardly the most promising customer base. The penny candy trade was always at the edges of the candy business. No respectable adult with more than five or ten cents to rub together would bother with the little shops where kids hung out and clerks spent the day swatting away grubby hands and dripping noses. In articles on cost accounting and business-building published in the candy journals, bean-counters encouraged candy makers and candy sellers to give up the penny trade: it just didn’t pay.

World War II pretty much killed off penny candy. There was sugar rationing, and much candy production was diverted to supply the troops with their requisite sweets. Candy ads from the period encourage Americans to be patient if they can’t find their favorite candies in stock, shorages were just a part of the war effort. Whatever by way of sugar, chocolate and the like that was left for the domestic market went to the manufacture of higher priced, more profitable goods. But of course, there were still children, and they still were going to be eating candy.

Around 1947, as the war wound down and things started getting back to normal, candy makers began looking around and noticing all those candy-hungry kids. Things were different, now, to be sure. Kids weren’t getting pennies the way they used to. The unwrapped penny goods were, in any case, gone. And mothers were more concerned both with regulating the money their kids had to spend, and with exercising more control over their children’s candy habits. At the same time, modern ideas about advertising, marketing, and packaging encouraged candy makers and sellers to start thinking more creatively about their customers and how to build their business.

At first, the idea was just to draw the attention of children: what price? what sort of wrapper? what sort of display? And to soothe the mothers: this candy is wholesome! this candy is clean!

But by 1952, the idea of a distinct children’s market had begun to inspire amazing innovations in promotion and sales which far surpassed tentative explorations of the late 1940s. A trade article on “Candy Packaging for the Small Fry” suggests the imaginative range of possibilities for packaging: There were “Play Money Pops” with cardboard coins; “Wild West Pops” with small Western toys; “Tasty Pops” which promised an educational candy experience with their new “Wheel-a-Word combination spelling game and bank that teaches children how to spell, and can be used for hoarding pennies as well.” And then there were the packages themselves: fancy boxes that would serve for jewelry or a picture frame when the candy was done; musical drums for pounding or, for the young ladies, drum-shaped pocketbooks filled with candy; and decorated glass tumblers featuring bunnies and sports themes. A precursor to Pez might be the “Clicker Bird”: a metal bird with a long neck and moveable head filled with candy. An extra notable feature was the built-in clicker: “Children love them, and the clickers are guaranteed to drive mothers to distraction.”

Candy filled toys were common and popular in the mid 1950s; if you wanted to sell in the children’s market, you needed a novelty, an extra, something to stand out and add to the candy itself. The Pez dispensers were part of a wave of innovation in children’s candy packaging. You’ll still find many novelty toy packages in the children’s candy rack at the drug store today. But Pez does stand out, as an idea that allowed for infinite variation in the same familiar package, appealing to new generations of children while gripping the adult imagination as well.

Sources: Margalit Fox, “Curtis Allina Dies at 87; He Put the Heads on Pez”, New York Times 5 January 2010; B.G. Collins, “Let’s Sell Candy to the Children,” Confectioners Journal June 1947, p. 35-36; Ann Marie Lawler, “Candy Packaging for the Small Fry,” Confectioners Journal May 1952, p. 25-26.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ionan/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

Entry filed under: Heroes and Personalities, Packaging, WWII to 1960s. Tags: , , , , .

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