Mr. Peanut Page 3
Planters' confection and manufacturing processes expanded after the establishment of the Suffolk plant. In 1921, a second factory was built at San Francisco, California, to capitalize on a growing market on the West Coast. Four years later, a third manufacturing plant was established at Toronto, Canada, and a national advertising campaign was launched to familiarize Canadians with the product. The company's national headquarters, with its executive offices, remained in Wilkes-Barre.
Planters set up a redemption center at 632 South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre to accommodate the thousands of mail orders for Mr. Peanut merchandise. Beginning in 1927, Planters' customers collected coupons in the form of letters contained inside peanut packages and candy bar wrappers. When they had collected the letters to spell "A OBICI," they could send away for a coloring book designed by Fischer. The most popular of these was a coloring book of the nation's presidents, issued in 1936, when 4,000 orders a week were filled at the Wilkes-Barre redemption center.
During the 1910s and 1920s, the growth of the business continued booming with sales approaching $10 million by 1929. As a result, two subsidiary companies were introduced that year: the National Peanut Corporation, which sold and promoted Planters, and Planters Edible Oil Company, which sold oil extracted from inedible peanuts.
Planters became so successful that it opened additional plants across North America in the 1930s and 1940s. Mr. Peanut could be seen strolling Atlantic City's iconic boardwalk where Planters established a retail store. "That was a beautiful store," recalled Herb Stern, vice chairman of New Jersey's Atlantic City Historical Museum. "You could smell the roasted peanuts on the boardwalk a block away. Outside, there was a man dressed up in the peanut costume. He'd give out little samples. They were supposed to be for the adults, but kids always snuck by. If you were lucky, you could sneak by two or three times." Other retail stores were established at San Francisco, Toronto, London, and on Times Square in New York City.
When Obici died in 1947, he headed a $60 million corporation consisting of seventy retail stores and four manufacturing plants, employing 5,000 people. His sound management and effective organization were continued under the leadership of the three subsequent presidents: Mario Peruzzi (1947–1955), Frank English (1955–1957); and M. L. English (1958– 1960). The dedication and loyalty of these individuals ensured that Wilkes- Barre would continue as Planters' national headquarters. Realizing the value of a children's market, they capitalized on the Mr. Peanut product line. By 1951, mail orders for such items as stuffed dolls, tooth brushes, back packs, savings banks, and rings had exploded to between 25,000 and 30,000 a week. Leo McLaughlin, a young Wilkes-Barre resident, was hired at 40 cents an hour to dress up in an eight-foot peanut figure of paper mache, mingle with shoppers on Public Square, and hand out free samples of Planters roasted peanuts. But the good times wouldn't last.
When Standard Brands bought Planters in 1961 for $20 million, it began to phase out its retail business, concentrating instead on supermarket sales. Wilkes-Barre, no longer the national headquarters for the multimillion-dollar peanut company, became just one of many distribution centers across the nation. Business continued to decline in the 1970s with a heightened awareness of food allergies and fad diets. Peanuts were banished from the diets of many Americans who preferred low-fat foods.
Another corporate merger took place in 1981 when Standard Brands and Nabisco combined to form Nabisco Brands. When Nabisco merged with R. J. Reynolds in 1985, the days of the old Planters headquarters at 632 South Main Street were numbered. RJR Nabisco built a new facility at the nearby Hanover Industrial Estates, where many of the Wilkes-Barre divisions were relocated. In 2000, Altria purchased Nabisco and, three years later, sold the unused South Main Street building to the City of Wilkes-Barre for a token $100. Since then, the brick warehouse and the redemption center have been demolished and all that remains of the executive office building is its elegant concrete façade.