The History of Kool-Aid
Remember that TV ad?
Well, Kool-Aid got its start right here 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 Perkins was always fascinated by chemistry and enjoyed inventing things. When his family moved to southwest Nebraska around 1900, a young Perkins experimented with home made concoctions in his mother’s kitchen. His father opened a General Store in Hendley, Nebraska, 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, Perkins graduated from high school, published a weekly newspaper, did job printing, served as postmaster and set up a mail order business called “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 called Nix-O-Tine. By 1920, the demand for this and other products was so great, Perkins and his wife moved to Hastings, which had better rail service for shipping purposes.
Another product that was proving to be popular was a concentrated drink mix called Fruit Smack. Fruit Smack, like Jell-O, came in six delicious flavors. The four-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¢ 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 nation-wide 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 Perkins 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, Perkins cut the price in half to just 5¢ 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.
Perkins 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 owners 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.
The Hastings Museum houses an impressive Kool-Aid collection as part of the Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream exhibit, including the original Kool-Aid Man costume worn in the television commercials.