The Origin Story Of Mr. Peanut Is All Thanks To A Teenager

The iconic Mr. Peanut celebrated his 100th birthday back in 2016, and the sweeping celebration that Planters threw was a testament to his enduring popularity as a mascot. (Daily Meal named him among the most iconic food mascots of all time.) While everyone recognizes the monocle-wearing, anthropomorphized peanut today, the story behind his creation is perhaps less well-known. And that's a shame because it's a pretty incredible tale.

It started with Amedeo Obici, the Italian-born founder of Planters. He was 12 years old (or, according to some sources, 11 years old) when he found himself heading to the US and relying on the kindness of strangers to find his way in a new and unfamiliar land. Obici met some friendly people who would become like family, and don't worry, this is all important background that's going to tie into Mr. Peanut's story.

Obici founded Planters in 1906, and ten years later, he decided they needed a mascot. The oft-told tale is that he held a contest looking for ideas that would be developed into the face of Planters, and the winner was 13-year-old Antonio Gentile from Suffolk, Virginia. In 2013, Gentile's nephew, Bob Slade, was curating an exhibition of his uncle's original drawings when he told the Suffolk News-Herald that aside from the announcement that his uncle had won the contest, he had never found a single mention of it otherwise. So how did Mr. Peanut come to be?

The prize for creating Mr. Peanut was $5 and a lifetime friendship

The story of Mr. Peanut starts with a few pencil sketches done by Antonio Gentile. Gentile was the Philadelphia-born son of Italian immigrants who had moved south to Suffolk, Virginia, at the beginning of the 20th century in order for the family patriarch to find work as a tailor. At the time, the city had a thriving community of Italian-Americans that included Planters founder Amedeo Obici. Obici had moved to Suffolk in 1913, and it made sense — it was the heart of America's peanut-producing farms, and by relocating from Pennsylvania, they cut transportation costs. 

The need for a mascot came when unscrupulous competitors started muscling in on the Planters' image, and Obici's way of pushing back was to advertise with the help of a mascot. Gentile's sketches of a peanut who walked with his now-famous cane netted the teenager a $5 prize.

However, there are a few pieces to the story that are missing. Gentile's original sketches were polished by an unknown artist before they became the Mr. Peanut we all know and love, and interestingly, there's also no record of the initial contest announcement. Gentile's nephew Bob Slade, told the Suffolk News-Herald, "I've always suspected the selection of the drawing was not an objective process." Objective or not, Mr. Peanut first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post shortly afterward and remained an important part of Planters for more than a century. (He was even roasted during a 2023 Super Bowl commercial!)

The Gentile family had a lifelong connection to Planters

Bob Slade reached out to the Smithsonian to donate those original drawings to the museum's collection, and at the time, he explained, "Our two families were close despite a wide financial disparity between them, with Amedeo and Louise Obici taking a personal interest in all of the children." He added, "Even though they were socially disparate, the common bond was they were Italian."

And Slade says that was a big deal. When Gentile graduated from high school in 1920, Obici paid for him to go to the University of Virginia and medical school — and he did the same for several of Gentile's siblings, as well. Gentile became an obstetrical surgeon at Virginia's Elizabeth Buxton Hospital and one of the youngest members of the American College of Surgeons. Slade described him as "a fixture in the social and fraternal world of the 'Peninsula,' as that part of Virginia is known."

His story, however, has a heartbreaking end. In 1939, the newlywed Gentile was at work when he suffered a major heart attack and died. When it came time to settle his estate, it was found that he had $1,130 in debts — around $25,000 when adjusted to 2023 inflation — taken on from patients who hadn't been able to pay. Slade explained that it was the sort of person his uncle was: "He was not one who was in it for the compensation. He was in it for the people he served." Gentile is buried in Newport News City, Virginia, and his family hopes that he will be remembered for his selfless generosity as well as his creation of Mr. Peanut.