An American tradition from Italian ingenuity

by Janice Therese Mancuso

Amedeo Obici, arrivato da solo in America a dodici anni da Oderzo, vicino a Venezia, è un esempio d’ingegnosità italiana e di stimolo al miglioramento. Conosciuto come “lo specialista delle noccioline”, ha creato una tradizione americana…

When Amedeo Obici traveled from his hometown of Oderzo (near Venice) to America in 1889, the 12-year-old traveled alone. His father had died when Amedeo was seven, and -- at the advice of her brother in Scranton, PA -- Amedeo’s mother sent him to America. A note attached to his overcoat gave his uncle’s address.

In Scranton, Obici learned English at night school, and throughout the years worked at various jobs. For a while, he worked at a fruit stand where roasted peanuts were sold. The peanuts were a popular inexpensive snack, and Obici noticed that the smell of the roasting peanuts attracted customers. He decided to sell roasted peanuts, and used scrap parts to make a portable peanut roaster and a pushcart. He placed a whistle on the pushcart that used the steam from the roasting peanuts to announce his arrival. In 1895, with the money he saved from selling peanuts, he brought his mother, brother and sister to America, and used the rest of his savings to open a fruit stand with a peanut roaster.

Over the next few years, Obici developed a better way to roast and blanch peanuts. His technique to remove the hulls and skins improved the appearance and taste of the peanuts, and he became known as “The Peanut Specialist.” Obici was good at marketing his product and used various promotions to sell the peanuts. He also supplied wholesale roasted peanuts to other businesses in eastern Pennsylvania. In 1906, he partnered with fellow immigrant Mario Peruzzi and formed Planters Peanut Company; and in 1908 the company incorporated as Planters Nut and Chocolate Company.

Obici was more concerned with customer satisfaction and loyalty than in selling large quantities to make quick profits. He used quality peanuts from Virginia and created packaging to not only preserve product freshness, but also as a convenience to the customer. Learning about the new paper product -- glassine -- that was translucent and oil-resistant, Obici used it in his packaging.

To be closer to his source of peanuts and to cut costs by removing the middleman, in 1913, Obici built a processing plant in Suffolk, VA. Three years later, he held a contest for the creation of a logo for the company. A sketch by 13-year-old Antonio Gentile was the winning entry and a company artist added the top hat, cane, monocle and spats. “Mr. Peanut” became very popular, and today is one of the most recognizable corporate symbols in the world.

In 1916, Obici married Louise Musante, and they moved to Suffolk in 1924. Obici purchased Bay Point Farm, an 1870s farmhouse and several structures on 263 acres that bordered the Nansemond River. He had the farmhouse moved to the banks of the river and remodeled it to resemble a villa he had seen in Italy. The couple did not have children, but held many events for local children in a clubhouse on their property, that was also used by employees of the company.

Obici expanded the company, building a production plant in California and one in Canada in 1924. He devised cost-effective ways to operate his business by using the broken peanuts for other products, including peanut oil that was introduced to America in 1930. That same year, Obici opened retail stores throughout the country that sold the company’s products. In 1933, he was the first employer in Suffolk to reduce the workweek from 50 to 40 hours at the same amount of pay.

Obici was very involved in the community and over the years was associated with the Suffolk Rotary Club, the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, and the Virginia Manufacturing Association, where he, at one point, held the position of director or president of each organization. He was also a member of the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce and the United States Chamber of Commerce. He purchased a local newspaper that was on the verge of closing, and with a friend built a hotel in Suffolk.

After the death of his wife in 1938, Obici established an endowment for a hospital in her memory; and four years after his death in 1947, the Louise Obici Memorial Hospital was built. In 1985, The Obici Foundation was established, and in 2006 the hospital merged with another healthcare facility to become the Obici Healthcare Foundation.

Standard Brands acquired Planters Peanut and Chocolate Company in 1961, and 20 years later, merged with Nabisco to form Nabisco Brands. Kraft Foods became the owner of Nabisco Brands and Planters in 2000. Today, Planters is a worldwide distributor of processed peanut products.

In 2003, the Obici estate was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house was used for weddings and other events, but fell into disrepair and is currently for sale. The house now sits on a golf course and local groups, including the regional preservation society, are working toward restoring it. The house has significant historical value, not just for its architecture, but because it belonged to an Italian immigrant who created an American tradition.

Janice Therese Mancuso is the author of Con Amore, a culinary novel; and founder of Thirty-One Days of Italians, an educational program to promote Italian and Italian American history, culture, and heritage. For more information, visit http://home.earthlink.net/~31italians, jtmancuso.com, or email jtmancuso@earthlink.net.