In the early 1900s, Italian immigrant Antonio Obici opened a fruit stand in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. To make his fruit stand different from the others, he spent $4.50 on a peanut roaster and sold roasted nuts along with his fruit. Back then, the roaster had to be continuously turned by hand to avoid burning the peanuts, and Obici devised a way to keep his roaster turning all by itself so that he could tend to his customers.
A few years of great sales on the peanuts and a growing popularity for the roasted nuts convinced Obici to stop selling fruit and concentrate on selling only peanuts. Obici and his brother-in-law, Mario Peruzzi, formed a partnership and called their new company Planters Nut and Chocolate Company.
In 1916, Planters held a contest to see who could come up with a character that would be used as the company mascot and trademark. A 14-year-old Virginia schoolboy named Antonio Gentile won the contest with his sketch of Mr. Peanut. Gentile won $5, and Planters hired a commercial artist to make Mr. Peanut ready for advertising. The artist had added a monocle, top hat and a cane to suggest good taste.
In 1918, Mr. Peanut appeared in a full page spread in the Saturday Evening Post, making Planters’ peanuts the first salted nuts nationally advertised.
In 1937 Mr. Peanut graced the face of a billboard in Times Square and his popularity continued to soar.
During WWII, Mr. Peanut lent his image to the war effort by promoting war saving stamps.
From 1961 to 1965, Mr. Peanut was a featured attraction at the New York World’s Fair. Some exclusive merchandise was created for the event.
In 1978 – with permission from Planters – The Peanut Pals formed. The group consists of Mr. Peanut collectors and their web site features a large assortment of memorabilia, including vintage bobble heads, figurines, tennis balls and umbrellas. The organization even attends an annual convention and hosts swap meets and auctions of all things Mr. Peanut.
In 1997, Mr. Peanut appeared in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Later, Planters became the Official Snack Food of NASCAR (1999-2001).
Mr. Peanut continues to be one of the most popular advertising icons. In 2004, he was given a star on Madison Avenue’s Advertising Walk of Fame. His Facebook page has nearly 1/2 million fans, where he gives advice and spotlights his latest ad endeavors.
For more than 90 years, Mr. Peanut has been associated with peanuts as a snack food, and he’s considered a legend in the advertising field. Although his illustrative style has changed a bit, his accessories (cane, monocle and top hat) make him immediately recognizable.
For an “Unwrapped” history of Planters and Mr. Peanut, watch this two-minute video from Unwrapped (Food Network):
Do you remember Mr. Peanut through the years? Do you own any of his collectible items? Share your story…