Eduard Haas III, the Austrian confectioner who dreamed up PEZ, was born near Vienna in 1897. He first became successful in the family grocery business by peddling a new brand of baking powder that made cakes lighter. But in the mid-1920s, young Haas had an inspiration of his own. He bought peppermint oil from a chemist and used it to create tiny, sugar-based candies that he shaped like bricks to make them easier for a machine to wrap. The candy's name, PEZ, was an abbreviation of "Ppferrerminze," the German word for peppermint.
Haas' new candy caught on in Vienna, and after World War II, the inventor looked for ways to broaden his market. He settled on the idea of marketing his peppermints to smokers who were trying to quit -- or, if they couldn't resist puffing away, they could use PEZ to freshen their breath [source: MIT.edu]. To that end, one of Haas' employees, Oscar Uxa, designed the first PEZ dispenser, which was meant to resemble a cigarette lighter [source: PEZ.com].
PEZ became a hit among cigarette-craving adults in Europe, with the help of sexy "PEZ girls" the company used in its advertising. But when Haas started selling the candy in the United States in 1952, he was surprised to discover that it seemed to appeal mostly to American children. In 1955, he altered his marketing strategy; he created new fruit-flavored PEZ and put the heads of characters like Santa Claus and Popeye atop the dispensers. The repurposed candy and dispensers became an immediate hit, and the company soon followed with dispensers featuring popular children's TV figures like Bozo the Clown and Casper the Friendly Ghost.
In 1970, Haas, by then a wealthy man, sold the company, which continued its phenomenal success by coming up with innovations like interchangeable heads, and feet that stabilized the dispensers so they could stand upright [source: MIT.edu]. The company also made a mint with dispensers based on characters like Darth Vader, Yoda and Chewbacca from the "Star Wars" films [source: PEZ.com]. Today, Orange, Conn.-based PEZ Candy Inc.'s products are sold in more than 80 countries across the world, and more than 3 billion of the candies are consumed in the United States alone annually [source: PEZ.com].
Next, we'll look at how PEZ dispensers became a collectors' favorite.