Among the fondest memories of we over-50s is penny candy. It amazes my children when I tell them that when I was a kid, you could actually buy something with a penny. In fact, you could often get two of something for a penny — like Bazooka Bubble Gum. In this age of packaged candy that costs a dollar or more, it is truly remarkable that there was a time when we could cash in an empty bottle, and use the two-cent deposit to buy candy!
And just when my children are telling me that the only use for a penny today is to pay sales tax, I blow their minds when I tell them that back when I was a kid, there was no sales tax. People just paid the listed price. Those pennies were just for candy.
Well recently I was travelling on I-95 in Connecticut and I passed a sign that advertized a museum of PEZ. Now PEZ is one of those special baby-boomer-era treats like penny candy. For the uninitiated, PEZ is a small brick-shaped candy that comes in several flavors. It started out In Austria in 1927 as a mint for people who wanted to quit smoking. In fact, the word PEZ comes from the German word “pfefferminz” meaning “peppermint.” The famous PEZ dispenser was designed to look like a cigarette lighter.
However, PEZ did not come to America until the 1950s. So we were the first generation of children to experience it, and the novelty of the now-iconic plastic dispenser. I think that it was certainly the dispenser that made PEZ special. They made hundreds of different dispensers with many famous characters on them. Collecting PEZ dispensers is still widespread enough that collectors gather annually for conventions.
At the PEZ Museum in Orange, Connecticut they have displays of the many ingenious dispensers that the company has made over the years. My favorites are the dispensers with the heads of presidents of the United States. But there are few licensed characters in the world from Mickey Mouse to Elvis Presley who have not had their heads on a PEZ dispenser.
In addition to the traditional cigarette shaped dispenser, PEZ also marketed guns as dispensers. This allowed kids to shoot candy into the mouths of their friends.
The PEZ museum is actually located at the plant where PEZ candy is made (the dispensers come from China). So if you go on a weekday, you can watch them make thousands of little PEZ bricks in scores of flavors. And of course, you can buy PEZ. Here, the self-guided tour does not just exit through the gift shop, it is integrated into the gift shop. But where else can you find a Thomas the Tank Engine or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles PEZ dispenser?
PEZ and penny candy are among the great treats of a baby boomer childhood. Sadly, only PEZ is still with us. The types of candy that a penny used to buy, if you can still find them, are now a specialty nostalgia item. But even at the current inflated price, a licorice pipe is a treat that I will want to share with my grandson. And I can amaze him with tales of the wondrous things a penny used to buy for a kid.