A large pitcher, some sugar and about half a gallon of water – along with a tiny packet of magic, otherwise known as Kool-Aid. Mix them all together and you get America’s favorite powdered fruit drink, a refreshing treat on a hot summer’s day. But while you may well know how to mix the perfect tropical punch, there’s a good chance you don’t know the brand’s fascinating history. Or that it all started with Jell-O…
An American larder staple for more than 90 years, Kool-Aid has quenched the thirst of millions of kids over the decades. From humble beginnings in Nebraska at the tail end of the 1920s, the powdered fruit drink unexpectedly rose to become one of the most recognized brands in the country.
An aggressive, not to say innovative marketing campaign, coupled with the sheer economy of the product meant that the Kool-Aid business boomed even when the economy didn’t. Glass after glass of sugary magic for just pennies meant that literally everyone could enjoy partaking in the fruity beverage. As a result, more than 500 million gallons of it are consumed every year, according to website PYMNTS.com.
But Kool-Aid isn’t just for imbibing: the powdered drink, it seems, has many, many other uses aside from quenching a summer thirst. For instance, did you know that it can be used in a whole bunch of DIY life hacks? The fruity beverage will apparently help you to clean your toilet, dishwasher and even your patio. In fact, you can even use it to check for leaks in plumbing. But the unusual applications don’t end there.
As you probably already know, Kool-Aid in its liquid form can stain literally anything. This means you can color wooden frames and Easter eggs, T-shirts, wool and even play dough, according to websites Inspiring Savings and Taste of Home. It also makes for great watercolor paints and scented lip gloss. But there are still more uses for the powdered drink.
In fact, one of the weirdest uses for the fruity beverage involves hair. Not only will it remove chlorine, but you can, if you’re so inclined, also dye your hair with Kool-Aid. Yup, according to Taste of Home the brightly-hued drink can add colors including blue, green or red to your locks. And the super-economical treatment, it seems, had one very famous fan.
Yup, one Kurt Cobain, late frontman for 1990s grunge icons Nirvana, used Kool-Aid to change the color of his tresses. Famously going from blond to bright red, the powdered drink helped the singer cement his rock-rebel image – and all for the cost of just a few cents.
But none of the hair-dying, toilet-cleaning, childhood summer Kool-Aid joy would be possible without one Edwin Perkins. Why is he so important? Well, he not only invented the fruity libation as we know and love it, he also single-handedly turned the drink into the beverage behemoth it later became. Our summers wouldn’t taste the same without him.
One of ten children born to parents Kizandra and David, Edwin Perkins came into the world in 1889. At the time, the family lived in Iowa, where the future inventor’s father owned and ran a general store. But in 1893 the Perkins gave up everything and moved to a farm in Nebraska.
At the time, though, Nebraska was in the grip of a drought. The Perkins’ new home, a mud-built house on the farm, had no running water. And while Kizzy and David worked hard growing saleable produce in near-impossible conditions, the children walked three miles to school. Life for the family, then, had changed considerably.
Despite the conditions, the family was able to save enough to lease a general store in Hendley, NB, and moved to the town soon after. By the time Edwin was 11 years old, he worked as a clerk in his father’s business. And it was here that the young man discovered a love of chemistry – and entrepreneurship.
According to the Kool-Aid Days website, during the course of Edwin’s clerking duties, he familiarized himself with the store’s selection of magazines. And in them, the youngster found two ads that piqued his curiosity. The first read, “Be a manufacturer – Mixer’s Guide tells how – Write today.” Around this time, meanwhile, he also came into contact with a product that changed his life: Jell-O, a powdered wonder-dessert, set him on the path to beverage invention.
Not long after replying to that first ad, Edwin received a few chemical formulas and some personalized labels. According to Kool-Aid Days, at that point “the youngster, by now 12 or 13 years old, made a nuisance of himself in his mother’s kitchen.” Thanks to those simple recipes, he made “pungent extracts, medicines and other concoctions suggested in the packet.”
The second ad that had caught Edwin’s eye involved learning to run a print shop. And as luck would have it, the youngster was offered a job as postmaster for the town. As a result, at just 13 years old, the future inventor combined two ideas into one business. Having purchased a printer, he began to run a mail-order company, offering the products he made using his knowledge of chemicals.
The Perkins Product Company sold, among other things, scents and laundry products from the Hendley Post Office. In addition to inventing and manufacturing the goods, Edwin also printed the brochures himself and employed a network of door-to-door salesmen to promote his wares. In this fashion, the young inventor became increasingly successful.
Then in 1909 while still in high school, Edwin added yet another string to his bow. He worked his printing press even harder by founding and publishing the Hendley Delphic, the town’s local newspaper. In addition, the young businessman continued to expand his product line to include spice mixes, flavorings, soap and desserts, all made and distributed by the man himself.
However, in 1918 two events changed the course of Edwin’s life. That year, the young inventor married his childhood sweetheart, Kitty Shoemaker. And secondly, the newlywed invented a smoking cessation product that was extraordinarily successful. As a result, the couple, and the company, finally moved from the Post Office to new premises in Hastings, NB.
Edwin, still intent on learning everything he could about business, took an internship in St. Louis, Missouri, studying distribution techniques. On his return, the entrepreneur was able to devote an entire year to developing a new series of goods he sold under the name “Onor-Maid.” The range was a success and soon consisted of over 125 separate products.
So successful was the Onor-Maid line that Edwin roped in his whole family to help meet the demand. According to Kool-Aid Days, “His wife, sisters, brothers and parents all filled bottles and jars.” And one of the most popular products in the Perkins catalog was the rather violent-sounding Fruit Smack.
A fruit concentrate made to be diluted with water, Fruit Smack had some issues, despite its popularity. Sold in a large glass bottle, the container had a tendency to leak or shatter during transit. As a result, Edwin set about turning the sugary liquid into an altogether more portable form.
Working in the Hastings property, Edwin and his team of assistants then began creating a powder that could easily be turned into a fruity drink. After tinkering with the ratio of ingredients, including citric acid and dextrose, they found the perfect formula. Thus, Kool-Aid was born – or at least the product was.
When Kool-Aid first came into being, Edwin named it “Kool-Ade.” But, due to either regulations involving fruit juice in products, or confusion over the pronunciation, the original spelling was dropped in favor of the now-familiar moniker. Of course, the inventor still had to package his new product.
The lightweight powder was ideal for distributing through the mail or via car-driving sales agents. But there was still the matter of ensuring it arrived fresh, dry and, above all, intact. After a few false starts, Edwin settled on the now-famous packets, which he both designed and printed himself. Lined with wax paper, the whole package was then beaten until flat and smooth.
Having perfected both Kool-Aid’s recipe and packaging, Edwin unleashed the fruity beverage on the nation in 1928. It was initially available in six flavors: cherry, orange, grape, lemon-lime, root beer and the inventor’s favorite, raspberry. It took a while for the product to gain any traction in the market. But then the inventor did two very smart things; firstly, he offered cash incentives to brokers for every box they sold.
Secondly, Edwin invented another product which he, naturally, produced and printed himself. Known as the Self-Selling Silent Salesman, the large, eye-catching display advertised Kool-Aid all year round. This technique is something with which we’re all familiar now, but, believe it or not, the Perkins Product Company was among the first to employ it.
Those techniques helped build Kool-Aid’s distributor network to over 90 brokers, all selling the product to local grocery stores. But Edwin wasn’t just good at chemistry and distribution. He also had an excellent marketing mind. And when it came to the price of the flavored drink, the inventor made an incredibly shrewd decision.
Each packet of Kool-Aid contained roughly 1 ounce of the powdered drink. That quantity, when combined with a sufficient amount of water, made about ten glasses, or approximately 2 quarts, of fruity goodness. And all for just 10 cents. In today’s money, that’s roughly $1.50. Compared to a bottle of Coke, which at the time, cost the same, that value was a no-brainer.
Within two years, that value would become even more important. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, families all over the country were struggling. As a reaction to that desperate situation, Edwin slashed the price of Kool-Aid by 50 percent. Ten glasses of fruity refreshment now cost just 5 cents. And at a time when businesses were failing at an alarming rate, the Perkins Product Company prospered, thanks to the inventor’s astute thinking.
As a result, the company moved to even larger premises in Chicago. According to the Kool Aid Days website, annual sales more than tripled to over $1.5 million, despite the downturn. The company now focused solely on producing Kool-Aid in its various flavors as well as its packaging. And thanks to aggressive and innovative marketing campaigns, the best was yet to come.
Thanks to celebrity endorsements, comic strips and children’s clubs, not to mention the lederhosen-wearing Kool-Aid Kid, the brand became almost ubiquitous. By 1950 more than 50 cities carried billboards for the fruity drink, and more than 3,000 print publications ran ads for it. And the astronomical sales figures proved the marketing was working.
In 1950 the Chicago factory produced no fewer than 323 million Kool-Aid sachets. That same year, the company made a whopping $10.5 million in profit. Edwin had taken the drink from a back-room specialty to a global brand in just over two decades. Just three years later, though, the inventor sold the company to General Foods, owner of Jell-O. Having always credited the dessert with inspiring his fruity beverage, for the inventor, it seemed his drink had come full circle. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Under the ownership of General Foods, later Kraft-Heinz, Kool-Aid became even more popular. Appealing to a new generation of consumers, the company came up with the sort of ingenious marketing campaigns and tie-ins that would have made its inventor proud. And the most successful of those innovations has become short-hand for the brand. A giant pitcher with a smiling face and a guarantee of property demolition, Kool-Aid Man made his first appearance in 1975.
Kool-Aid Man, however, was actually conceived as an idea way back in 1954. Known as “Pitcher Man,” the design was allegedly inspired by a simple picture drawn in condensation. Forsaken for celebrity endorsers, including The Monkees, it would be 20 years before the icon was reborn. And when he finally hit our screens, it could all have been very different.
Indeed, those memorable commercials featuring wanton property destruction almost didn’t happen. Having Kool-Aid Man smash through walls was reportedly a spur-of-the-moment decision, made on set during filming. The change allegedly came about after the realization that the character needed to make a big entrance. Mission very much accomplished. Oh yeah!
Kool-Aid Man proved so popular that he spawned many a pop-culture spin-off. For instance, the giant wall-smashing pitcher featured in not one, but two, video games during the 1980s. One, though, was only available through redeeming 125 points earned by purchasing a ton of the fruity drink. Unsurprisingly, neither were considered classics.
In 1983 the character became a comic-book star, albeit briefly. The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man, produced by Marvel no less, ran for just five issues. The series saw the wall-smashing jug battling aliens with Hulk-like strength, impressing kids and living like a billionaire. Tony Stark would, no doubt, be very proud.
The long-running campaign, along with monstrous sales, meant that generation after generation have shared the Kool-Aid Man experience. As a result, the wall-smashing talking jug has subsequently appeared in animated TV series including Family Guy and The Simpsons. But it’s not just pop culture that celebrates the fruity beverage.
During the 1990s, authorities in Nebraska made two Kool-Aid-related decisions. The first saw the powdered beverage named the state’s official soft drink, a title it still holds. And in 1998 the town of Hastings held the first-ever Kool-Aid Days Festival. A weekend-long celebration of the product born there featured, among other things, visitors chugging the fruity stuff, spitting watermelon seeds and picking a pageant queen.
Even now, Kool-Aid remains a big part of summer for millions of people. That classic range, though, has changed and expanded over the decades. It now totals more than 20 fruity flavors, including Cherry Limeade, Sharkleberry Fin and Green Apple. Some ideas, however, such as the watermelon-cherry combo known as Pink Swimmingo, simply never found an audience.
And it’s not just Kool-Aid’s range of flavors that has expanded. Sales, too, have continued to grow, in an exponential fashion. In fact, according to PYMNTS.com, if you placed the packets purchased in just one year end-to-end they would snake around the Earth twice. That’s a lot of tasty refreshment. So, the next time you make a cool glass of powdered magic, remember Edwin Perkins – he made your summer a fruitier place.