C'mon. Admit it. At least once in your life -- be it as a party favor, stocking stuffer or special surprise -- you've received a Pez dispenser filled with those small, brick-shaped candy tablets.
Pez candies date back to 1927, first created in Vienna as an alternative to smoking. The name Pez uses the first, middle and last letters of the German word "pfefferminz" (or peppermint). Pez became available in the United States in 1952, and in 1973, the company built its first U.S. candy manufacturing facility in Orange, Connecticut.
Three years ago, a visitor center was added to the Pez facility, where you can learn all about this staple of American pop culture. It's an easy pit stop off I-95 North (take Exit 41) for travelers bound for New Haven (about 5 miles away) and beyond. Orange is about 76 miles from New York City, an hour and a half to two hours by car.
"People are surprised to see how many dispensers there have been, how many varieties and characters. There really is almost a dispenser for everyone," says Shawn Peterson, Pez project manager. "There are baseball teams and firemen, doctors and policemen. Favorite characters like Tom and Jerry and current ones like SpongeBob. We try to stay relevant with the times, but we don't want to do anything that's really not keeping with the history of the brand."
At the Pez visitor center, you'll find a comprehensive collection of Pez memorabilia, an interactive review of Pez history and a viewing area of the Pez production floor where, on weekdays, you can see the candy being made.
"We use 100,000 pounds of sugar a week and make 12 million individual candy tablets per day," says Peterson, whose own extensive Pez collection is displayed at the visitor center.
The dispensers are made in China and Hungary but you can learn all there is to know about the bestsellers, the rarest, and the unusual at the Connecticut facility. And you can shop in the factory store, where you might choose a single dispenser of your favorite character with a candy refill for $1.79, a collector set of five U.S. presidents for $12.99 or a large candy wrapper purse for $34.99. (A mini version is available for $16.99.)
On this day, Elizabeth Seng, who lives in Manhattan, and her fiancé, Laurence Tamaccio of New Haven, are looking for wedding favors.
"I used to get a Pez dispenser every holiday," Seng says. "I've collected them since I was a kid."
Over the years, Pez has garnered much attention in magazines, newspapers, television shows and movies. Daffy Duck, Donald Duck and Spider-Man dispensers graced the cover of Forbes magazine in 1993, while a Tweety Bird dispenser had a starring role in a 1992 episode of "Seinfeld." The television game show "Jeopardy!" has included Pez questions multiple times, going so far as to devote an entire category to Pez during one episode.
Special Pez conventions for avid collectors began forming in the 1990s and are still popular. Peterson says the brand's iconic nature lends itself to an inevitable nostalgia.
"In the late '60s, early '70s, we were making astronaut dispensers because the space race was a big deal. In the mid '70s, when the country celebrated the bicentennial, we had Uncle Sam and Betsy Ross," he says. "So when you look back, is a time capsule of what else was going on in the country at the time."
IF YOU GO
PEZ VISITOR CENTER: 35 Prindle Hill Rd., Orange, Connecticut
ADMISSION: $5 adults; $4 children 3-12, seniors and groups of 10 or more; children under 3 free.
HOURS: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 12-5 p.m. (Hours are seasonal, so make sure to call or check the website before visiting.)
INFO: 203-298-0201; pez.com