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During the heated 2020 Democratic primary debate, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey said smugly to former Vice President Joe Biden: “There’s a saying in my community that you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.” Despite the profound utterings of all 10 opponents, this tease has become one of the most talked-about exchanges from Wednesday night’s discussions. Why would Booker say such a line and what does it mean? Let’s take a look at Kool-Aid first and answer this question at the end.

Kool-Aid today is a household name. We have all seen the smiling Kool-Aid man’s face drawn on a frosty glass pitcher full of the fruity liquid. As kids selling lemonade on a hot street corner know it is a guaranteed thirst quencher and smart money maker for a routine summer’s day. But the story of the creation of Kool-Aid by Edward Perkins and its rise to popularity is an interesting one as we will see.

The story opens in the Midwest at the turn of the century (1900) with the Perkins family moving to Hendley, Nebraska and starting a general store there.

As a boy, young Perkins was fascinated by the study of chemistry and enjoyed inventing things that could make money. Working in the store to help out, Edward became familiar with a new dessert mix called Jell-O (a product we covered in a June 2016 column) and begged his father to carry all flavors. Always the entrepreneur, he sent away for a kit called “How to Become a Manufacturer” and studied its procedures. Before he was 20, Perkins set up a small mail order business called “Perkins Products Company” to market the numerous goods he had compounded.

For example, in 1918, Perkins had developed a remedy to kick the tobacco habit that he sold as “Nix-O-Tine.” and it sold well. By 1920, the demand for this and other products was so great, Perkins moved to nearby Hastings because it had better rail service for shipping purposes.

Another product he sold that was proving to be popular was a concentrated drink mix called Fruit Smack.

Fruit Smack, like Jell-O, came in six “delicious” flavors and the four-ounce bottle made a large pitcher full that was enough for a family to enjoy at an affordable price. Unfortunately, shipping the liquid in bottles proved to be costly and breakage was becoming a significant problem.

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In 1927, Perkins developed a method of removing the liquid from Fruit Smack so the remaining fruity powder could be re-packaged in envelopes under a new name he called Kool-Ade. Instead of making an after-dinner desert like Jell-O, Perkins created a powdered-mix drink that could be enjoyed at any time. Within a year the spelling was changed to the Kool-Aid as we know today.

This product, which sold for 10¢ a packet, was first distributed to wholesale grocery, candy, and other suitable markets by mail order, and like Fruit Smack, came in six flavors: strawberry, cherry, lemon-lime, grape, orange, and raspberry, almost following the Jell-O lineup.

By 1929, Kool-Aid was shipped nationwide to grocery stores by food brokers but it was still a family project with the Perkins’ keeping the secret of manufacture closely guarded. By 1931, the demand for the drink was so strong that the other less profitable items were dropped from their listing so Perkins could concentrate solely on Kool-Aid. In that year he moved the entire production line to Chicago for more efficient distribution and to be closer to suppliers.

During the Great Depression, Perkins cut the price in half to just 5 cents a packet, a “luxury” most families could still afford. As the bad times eased, Perkins introduced off-shoots of Kool-Aid including pie fillings and ice cream mixes but these products never really took off with the public. During World War II, fruit acid and dextrose rationing prevented any expansion but after the war ended, the demand for Kool-Aid skyrocketed and Perkins had to expand the factory again. In 1950, 300 production workers produced nearly a million packets of Kool-Aid each day.

In the end, in 1953, Perkins sold his company to General Foods, which is now part of Kraft Foods and it is ironic that in doing so Kool-Aid would join Jell-O in the General Foods family. Perkins died in 1961 a rich man.

The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to mindless followership without fully understanding the ramifications or implications. It became popular, especially in politics, after the 1978 Jonestown Massacre when followers of Jim Jones, on his command, drank from a metal vat containing a mixture of “Kool Aid,” cyanide, and prescription drugs. In all, over 300 people died that day.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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