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The drink kids of all ages have come to know and love as Kool-Aid® got its start in Hastings, Nebraska, the brainchild of an innovator and entrepreneur named Edwin Perkins.

Born just before the turn of the century, Perkins had always enjoyed studying chemistry and inventing things. As a child he experimented with home-made concoctions such as flavoring extracts and perfumes in his mother's kitchen. Meanwhile, his father opened a general store in town where the boy was introduced to new and exciting food products such as Jell-O and first got interested in entrepreneurship. At age eleven, he sent away for a mixer's guide he saw in a magazine advertisement. As a teenager he sent away for a kit called "How to Become a Manufacturer." After he finished high school, the active and ambitious Perkins published a weekly newspaper, did job printing, served as postmaster and, at age 25, set up a mail order business called Perkins Products Co. to market the numerous products he had invented. The company sold small bottles of perfume and calling cards through magazine advertisements.

In 1918, Perkins married his childhood sweetheart, Kitty and continued to operate Perkins Products. One of the company's offerings that proved most popular was a concentrated drink mix called Fruit Smack, which came in six flavors. A four-ounce bottle made enough for an entire family to enjoy at an affordable price. But shipping the bottles of syrup was costly and breakage was becoming a problem. This prompted Perkins in 1927 to develop a method of removing the liquid from Fruit Smack so the remaining powder could be re-packaged in envelopes and consumers would only have to add water to enjoy the drink at home. Perkins designed and printed envelopes with a new name —Kool Ade —to package the powder with. (Later this spelling would change to "Kool-Aid," of course.)

Because the packets were lightweight, meaning a dramatic drop in shipping costs, Perkins sold each Kool-Aid packet for a dime, wholesale by mail at first, to grocery, candy and other stores. It came in strawberry, cherry, lemon-lime, grape, orange and raspberry. In 1929, Kool-Aid was distributed nation-wide to grocery stores by food brokers. Perkins and his family handled all the distribution by themselves.

By 1931, demand for Kool-Aid was so strong, Perkins dropped the manufacture of his other products to 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 cents per packet, and he introduced off-shoots of Kool-Aid including pie fillings and ice cream mixes. These products never really took off with the public, especially since during World War II, fruit acid and dextrose became difficult to come by.

After the war, Perkins expanded the Kool Aid factory further, and by 1950, 300 production workers produced nearly a million packets of Kool-Aid each day. In 1953, Perkins announced to his staff that he was selling Kool-Aid to General Foods (which would merge with Kraft in 1989). Within a year, General Foods introduced a new advertising campaign for Kool-Aid, featuring the Smiling Face Pitcher that remains Kool-Aid's trademark today. 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.

Perkins passed away in 1961, but Kool-Aid is sure to remain a part of our lives for a long time to come. After all, it is the official soft drink of the state of Nebraska.

[October 2001]



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