Mr. Peanut Page 1
Mr. Peanut's Hometown: Wilkes-Barre and the Founding of Planters Peanuts
by William C. Kashatus
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVI, Number 3 - Summer 2010
Few may realize it, but for nearly a half-century, the Luzerne County seat of Wilkes-Barre, in northeastern Pennsylvania, was the peanut capital of the world. Founded in 1906, the Planters Peanut Company operated its national headquarters at 632 South Main Street in an impressive two-story Federal-style building. A handsome balustrade encircled the roof of the elegant concrete edifice and was embellished with twenty cast iron "Mr. Peanut" statues, each standing three feet tall, top-hatted, and grinning.
Adjoining the north side of the office building was a four-story brick warehouse featuring a large mural of the monocled celebrity. A brick building on the south side warehoused Mr. Peanut merchandise which was redeemable by coupon. Mail orders were processed here for everything from dolls to toy trucks and penny whistles.
On most summer days, an eight-foot tall Mr. Peanut mascot, wearing a black top hat, monocle, and white spats, strolled along Wilkes-Barre's shopping district, handing out free roasted peanuts to children. His intention was to lure their parents to the Planters retail store just off Public Square, at 10 East Market Street, where they could purchase peanuts as well as trinkets. The store also featured peanut grinders, Mr. Peanut figures sitting astride and pedaling large machines that ground the nuts. Children were fascinated by the activity and would stand to watch the process as long as their parents allowed.
By 1950, Planters had grown to a $60 million per year operation with dozens of retail stores, four principal manufacturing plants, and some 5,000 employees spread throughout North America. The remarkable success of the enterprise was due to the vision of its founder, Amedeo Obici (pronounced Ah-may-day-oh Oh-bee-chee).
He was born on July 15, 1877, to Pietro Ludovico and Luigia Carolina Sartori Obici in the small town of Oderzo, near Venice, in northern Italy. His father died when Obici was seven years old. At the age of ten, he immigrated to the United States to live with his uncle, his mother's brother Vittorio Sartori, in Scranton, Lackawanna County, ten miles north of Wilkes-Barre. Sartori, his wife, and their two children had immigrated to Scranton several years earlier. Uneducated, the youngster learned to speak English while working at a cigar factory for one dollar a week.
In 1892, Obici, at the age of fifteen, moved to Wilkes-Barre, where he worked for friends at a fruit and nut stand for free board and a small salary. Much like the more than 10,000 Italians who arrived in northeastern Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley during the early decades of the twentieth century, he hoped to escape the grueling life of an anthracite miner by becoming self-employed. Working several odd jobs, Obici saved enough money to open his own nut and fruit stand on East Main Street. He also began to research the peanut, which is a legume, or a plant with pods that split open when the seeds are ripe. The ripened seed is the peanut. Believing he could increase his profits if his customers didn't have to crack open the shell and peel off the skin of the peanut, Obici purchased a $4.50 peanut roaster and invented his own method of blanching whole roasted peanuts. Within a few years, he adopted the title of "Peanut Specialist," and began peddling his product from a horse and wagon to other storekeepers.
His early success inspired other entrepreneurial endeavors. In his early twenties, Obici mortgaged his fruit stand for $39,000 and opened a combination soda fountain and oyster bar. Above the restaurant, he installed a roaster to continue expanding his peanut business. Obici quickly recognized that the peanut market had a bright future and began envisioning an even greater market than the local economy afforded.