Ancestors, Legends & Time

Summer time : Kool-Aid time

Jeanne Newby

Remember the cooling effect of drinking a glass of Kool-Aid on a warm summer day? When we were kids, my mom always bought grape Kool-Aid. My kids grew up with a variety, but the grandkids got Tropical Punch. Whenever I eat a chocolate chip cookie and drink a glass of grape Kool-Aid, my memories fly back to Bible school!

Well, I have some information on the invention of Kool-Aid to share.

Kool-Aid got its start in Hastings, Nebraska. This internationally known soft drink mix, now owned by Kraft Foods, actually started out as a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack, invented by Edwin Perkins.

Edwin was always fascinated by chemistry and enjoyed inventing things. When his family moved to southwest Nebraska around 1900, the young Edwin experimented with concoctions in his mother’s kitchen. His father opened a general store in Hendley, Neb., and it was in that store where Edwin became entranced with a new dessert mix introduced by a childhood friend (and future wife) Kitty Shoemaker. The popular powdered dessert came in six delicious flavors and was called Jell-O.

Edwin convinced his father to carry the dessert line in his store. It was at this same time Edwin sent away for a kit called “How to Become a Manufacturer.” During the following years, Edwin graduated from high school, published a weekly newspaper, had a job printing business, became the postmaster and set up a mail order business, “Perkins Products Co.,” to market the numerous products he had invented.

In 1918, Perkins married his childhood sweetheart, Kitty, and developed a remedy to kick the tobacco habit, Nix-O-Tine. By 1920, the demand for this and other products was so great, Edwin and his wife moved to Hastings, Neb., which had better rail service for shipping purposes.

Another product that was proving to be popular was a concentrated drink mix called Fruit Smack. Like Jell-O, it came in six delicious flavors. The concentrated 4-ounce bottle made enough for a family to enjoy at an affordable price. However, shipping the bottles proved to be costly, and breakage was also a problem.

In 1927, Perkins developed a method of removing the liquid from Fruit Smack so the remaining powder could be re-packaged in envelopes (which Perkins designed and printed) under a new name to be called Kool-Ade. (He later changed the spelling to Kool-Aid.)

The product, which sold for 10 cents a packet, was first sold to wholesale grocery, candy and other suitable markets by mail order in six flavors; strawberry, cherry, lemon-lime, grape, orange and raspberry. In 1929, Kool-Aid was distributed nationwide to grocery stores by food brokers. It was a family project to package and ship the popular soft drink mix around the country.

By 1931, the demand for Kool-Aid was so strong, other items were dropped so Edwin could concentrate solely on Kool-Aid. He moved the entire production to Chicago for more efficient distribution, to be closer to supplies and to be able to expand even further if necessary.

During the Great Depression, Edwin cut the price in half to just 5 cents a packet, a “luxury” most families could afford. Young entrepreneurs sprung up across the country setting up Kool-Aid stands. While most of the profits were consumed by the youngsters, it was something most children enjoyed. (Did you ever have a Kool-Aid stand?  We had one by the shirt factory, and the ladies who worked there were very special customers!)

Edwin introduced off-shoots of Kool-Aid, including pie fillings and ice cream mixes. These products never really took off with the public. During World War II, fruit acid and dextrose rationing prevented any expansion. After the war, the demand for Kool-Aid was so great that Perkins had to expand the factory and by 1950, some 300 production workers produced nearly 1 million packets of Kool-Aid each day!

In 1953, Perkins announced to his staff that he was selling Kool-Aid to General Foods. Within a year, the popular smiling face pitcher was introduced in print advertisements. Root beer and lemonade flavors were added to the original six flavors in 1955, and pre-sweetened Kool-Aid was developed in 1964 and redeveloped in 1970.

Kraft Foods eventually acquired General Foods and became the new owner of Kool-Aid. They refined the Kool-Aid pitcher into Kool-Aid Man and introduced new Kool-Pumps and Kool Bursts to the market. Kool-Aid continues to be a popular product with roots in Hastings. It is the official soft drink of Nebraska!

Edwin and Kitty Perkins never forgot their Nebraska ties and returned home often. The Perkins Foundation has been instrumental in many projects in and around Hastings, including gifts to Hastings College, Mary Lanning Memorial Hospital, Good Samaritan Retirement Village and the Hastings Museum. Edwin passed away in 1961 and Kitty followed 16 years later. Both are buried in Hastings. What a fun couple they must have been… inventing and sharing their knowledge.

The Hastings Museum houses an impressive Kool-Aid collection, including the original Kool-Aid Man costume worn in the television commercials.

I have one of the early Kool-Aid packages, and it includes the recipe to make sherbet out of Kool-Aid.

Kool-Aid, a product that is still with us today and still popular after almost 100 years. Great childhood memories. Remember the jingle? Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid taste great. Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid can’t wait!

Jeanne’s new book, “The Zinc City, Webb City, Missouri” is now available at Webb City Chamber Office.

Jeanne Newby

A lot of us appreciate the Bradbury Bishop Fountain, but Jeanne actually worked behind the counter making sodas while she was in high school. She knows everything about Webb City and is a member of the Webb City R-7 School Board.