Thursday, 29 April 2010

Museum Piece / Museum Pez

To every thing there is a season, according to Pete Seeger. I'd add that to every collectable item there is (somewhere) a museum.

That's certainly true for Pez, the confectionery that's known for its novelty dispensers fashioned in the shapes of famous people or characters. There is indeed a museum devoted to Pez!

More of that in a minute; but first, here's a Pez profile I prepared earlier...

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Unfamiliar with Pez? It consists of a plastic dispenser which pops out tiny brick-shaped sweets. The long shaft of the dispenser is topped by a colourful head, often a character from TV or film.

And they’re very, very collectable. Users of eBay will bid hundreds of dollars for rare Pez dispensers. Other sites offer the rare Arithmetic Pez for over US$500. And a set of the original Bride and Groom Pez dispensers will set you back about US$3000. That’s a lot of money for a humble plastic novelty item.

Melbourne collector Sue Ann Barber stumbled across the hobby some years ago. “When I first started collecting they were a cheap, colourful item that was readily available, and few other people seemed to collect them. Now I know otherwise.”

Although Pez is a big hit in the USA, it was created in Austria in 1927. A devilishly clever Viennese businessman, Eduard Haas, created a new peppermint sweet. The name came from the German word for peppermint: pfefferminz. Taking the first, middle and last letters of that word, Haas came up with Pez.

To start with, it was a humble breath mint which Haas thought might sell as an alternative to smoking. The sweets were carried around in pocket tins, but after World War II Pez started popping out of the plastic dispenser. It took another decade for heads to be added to the rectangular plastic stems. To break into the American market, Pez dispensers had colourful heads placed on them, and they were sold to children.

The experiment was a great success, and over the years hundreds of different heads have been manufactured. In 1987, a finishing touch was added as the dispensers gained small “feet” at the other end of their bodies. Naturally, as some heads went out of production they became rarer. All the elements of a collecting craze were there: a variety of items, some rare, mixed with the nostalgia of childhood. A collectable was born.

Some strange but true facts about Pez:

- An Elvis Presley Pez dispenser appeared in the film The Client, leading to numerous enquiries from collectors. Unfortunately, it was merely a model made especially for the movie, and collectors yearned for an Elvis Pez for decades until the company finally produced a set of three Elvises in 2007.

- Some die-hard Pez fans have made customised Pez dispensers by fashioning heads and attaching them to the Pez stems. One enterprising fan, for example, made KISS Pez dispensers by repainting old Wonder Woman ones.

- The Merry Music Makers series featured Pez dispensers with heads that whistled when blown into.

- The original dispenser, without a head, looked like a cigarette lighter because it flipped up at the top.

- The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Pez dispensers came in two varieties: with angry faces and happy faces. Because their stems also came in seven colours, there are 56 TMNT dispensers to collect.

- The two biggest-selling Pez dispensers of all time featured Santa and Mickey Mouse.

- When a dispenser has a darker skin colour than another of the same type, collectors refer to the difference as a “Club Med Face”.

- Pez Body Parts are sets of costumes, hands and feet which snap onto the Pez stem, giving the head a body to go with it.

- The highest winning eBay bid for a standard format Pez dispenser was US$6575 in 2002. This was topped by the US$11,211 paid for a transparent 1950s “space gun” Pez dispenser in 2005... which was later alleged to be a fake. Many other Pez have been sold for four-figure sums.

A number of Pez items other than the dispensers have been produced. Among these are balloons, bracelets, clocks, greeting cards and even a steel die-cast delivery truck and bank.

The oddest Pez-related item ever devised? “Probably the Pez teddy bear,” says Barber. “I only ever saw photos of it, as it never got made. Not sure if it was meant to dispense Pez, as I'd hate to think where they came out from! Otherwise, the lip balm. Isn't the whole point of Pez to dispense candy rather than soothe your lips?”

Making things even more challenging for collectors, there are differences between Pez in different countries. Enter the Internet, which revolutionised and reinvigorated Pez collecting by putting geographically dispersed collectors in touch with each other.

Meanwhile, Pez Candy Inc still churns out new Pez dispensers each year. One day, someone might even pay attention to the actual sweets within the dispensers. Do you know they know longer make Pez in one of its original flavours, chlorophyll? Shocking.

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And now... the museum. The Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia is located in San Francisco, USA, located between the San Fran International Airport and the San Mateo Bridge, right next to the Burlingame train station.

Unrecognised by Pez Candy Inc, the museum has had stormy relations with the confectionery giant, having been sued by it in 2009. However, it's still in operation, both selling Pez dispensers and exhibiting an impressive array of Pez memorabilia from decades past. Happy dispensing!

(Note: The Hello Kitty-themed dispenser pictured above is courtesy of photographer Deborah Austin, via Wikimedia Commons)