PEZ was invented in 1927 in Vienna, Austria, as a peppermint flavored breath mint. At first, the candy was sold in rolls as “Drops,” similar to Life Savers and other hard candy. During the 1930s, brick-shaped PEZ was also sold in small tins that protected the candies when kept in the pocket. Customers could purchase refills that looked similar to the ones sold today, but the multi-colored plastic dispensers we associate with PEZ would not be introduced until after World War II.
The first "BOX Regular" PEZ dispensers appeared in 1949 and were shaped like cigarette lighters, which was in keeping with the candy’s positioning at the time as an aid to help people quit smoking. That same year, the words on the containers were changed to “BOX Patent,” and for a brief period, there was even a dispenser that had a small locking mechanism on the top. These locking dispensers are quite rare. In addition, many PEZ dispensers produced in postwar Germany bear the words “US Zone” on them.
Some of the first character dispensers were shaped like robots and Santa Claus. The bodies of these dispensers from 1955 went beyond the rectangular outline of the refills inside them. Instead, Santa was rotund, which the robots were bulky, with arms stiffly at their sides. One especially hard-to-find Regular PEZ from this era is the Golden Glow, which came with a round gold base, so that the dispenser could be displayed almost like a piece of sculpture.
To contemporary eyes, the most curious, and even disturbing, PEZ shape is the space gun from 1956, which came in a variety of colors and actually shot pieces of candy. Today, of course, it’s difficult to imagine a candy company expecting its young customers to put the muzzle of a gun in their mouths and pull the trigger in order to consume its product, but in the mid-1950s and ’60s, when the space gun was retooled as a handgun, the delivery device was all in good fun.
During the 1950s, as PEZ tried to gain a foothold in the United States, the flavors of the candy were expanded beyond a range of mints to include numerous fruits. And then came the characters: Popeye, a bunny, and a witch were among the first to be introduced at the end of the 1950s, followed by Casper the Friendly Ghost, Bozo the Clown and several Disney characters, from Mickey Mouse to Donald Duck, at the beginning of the 1960s. Many of these dispensers had character heads as well as additional character images die-cut into their sides (for example, Huey, Dewie, and Louie appeared on the sides of Donald Duck dispensers).
Today, some of the most sought PEZ dispensers are from the 1950s and ’60s. Wonder Woman and Thor dispensers are just two of the comic-book characters collected by fans, while the Psychedelic Hands dispensers from 1968, each of which holds an eyeball, are favorites of people who collect rock posters and ’60s psychedelia. In 1987, PEZ added feet its dispensers, so that’s one easy way to date a dispenser.