It’s been a staple of American pitchers and cups for nearly 90 years, but you might not know the sugary drink quite as well as you think you do. Here are a few nuggets about its history, alternate uses, and marketing that will make you yell, “Oh yeah!”
1. KOOL-AID WAS BORN IN HASTINGS, NEB.
Edwin Perkins, the man behind Kool-Aid, was originally a mail-order merchant of all sorts of products. He peddled a sunburn salve of his own creation, medicine, cleaning supplies, foods, and whatever else he could find. After striking out on his own in 1920 to form the Perkins Products Co. in Hastings, Neb., Perkins expanded his offerings to include a fruity soft drink that quickly won customers over.
2. IT WASN'T ALWAYS A POWDER.
Kool-Aid is famous for its inexpensive envelopes of powdered drink mix, but it wasn’t always a solid. When Perkins began selling fruity soft drinks in the 1920s, his product was a liquid concentrate that came packaged in four-ounce bottles. Perkins would ship the small bottles to customers, who could mix up a pitcher of soft drink by adding sugar and water.
3. A SHIPPING PROBLEM HELPED SPARK ITS SUCCESS.
Drinkers loved Perkins’s concoction, but it was far from the perfect mail-order product. The syrup—which he sold in lemon, raspberry, orange, root beer, cherry, and grape varieties—had to be mailed in heavy glass bottles, which led to hefty expenses for postage and were prone to shattering in transit. Ever the inventive chemist, Perkins took a cue from the success of Jell-O and abandoned the liquid in favor of a lightweight, easily shipped powder form of the drink. He started marketing the new powder in 1927.
4. IT WASN'T ALWAYS CALLED KOOL-AID.
When Perkins started selling his syrupy concentrates, he hadn’t settled on the Kool-Aid moniker yet. Instead, he was using the less marketable name Fruit Smack. After he created the new powdered formulation, he began packaging the drink in envelopes and switched the name to Kool Ade. This spelling didn’t stick—theories for its dismissal include the “-ade” suffix only being allowed for fruit juice and a potential lawsuit—and in 1934, Perkins trademarked the “Kool-Aid” spelling.
5. CLEVER MARKETING HELPED KOOL-AID WEATHER THE DEPRESSION.
Kool-Aid really started to take off right as the Great Depression hit, but Perkins found a way to weather that economic storm. Envelopes had always sold for 10 cents apiece, and demand had been surging at that price. In 1933, though, Perkins cut the price of a packet of Kool-Aid in half. Dropping the envelopes to a nickel apiece may have sounded crazy at first, but it proved to be a canny move. Even at the height of the Depression, getting the makings of an entire pitcher of a delicious beverage for a nickel seemed like a good deal, and Kool-Aid backed the price cut with a marketing campaign that billed it as “the Budget Beverage,” an attainable luxury. The audacious move worked so well that the price stayed at a nickel for years.
6. IT TOOK A BREAK TO FIGHT WORLD WAR II.
Like many companies that relied on sugar, the rationing programs of World War II hit the Perkins Products Co. hard. The company managed to stay busy even as the consumer demand for Kool-Aid dwindled, though. Rations sent to U.S. troops traveling abroad included various powdered drink mixes, and while they may not have carried the Kool-Aid name, some rations came loaded with “Beverage powder, lemon flavor” from Perkins Products Co. Demand for Kool-Aid was stronger than ever after the war.
7. THE KOOL-AIR MAN BURST ONTO THE SCENE IN 1975.
While Kool-Aid advertising featured talking anthropomorphic pitchers as far back as the 1950s, the pitcher pitchman really came into his own when he made the transition to television. In his first appearance, the Kool-Aid Man made one of his famous burst-through-a-wall entrances to help quench the thirst of kids at a bowling alley. The character would undergo tweaks—gaining arms, dropping the name “Pitcher Man”—but the spot established the Kool-Aid Man’s basic formula. Kids would say they were thirsty while enjoying some athletic activity, one kid would call, “Hey, Kool-Aid,” and the Kool-Aid Man would burst through a fence or wall and yell, “Oh yeah!” Audiences loved it so much that in 2000, the Kool-Aid Man got to leave his footprints in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
8. THE KOOL-AID MAN HAD HIS OWN VIDEO GAME.
How hot was the Kool-Aid Man in the late '70s and early '80s? In 1983 he latched onto another cultural keystone of the era, the Atari 2600, for his own video game: Kool-Aid Man, which was available as both a mail-in premium and in stores. The Mattel-produced game, which was also available for Intellivision, sees the titular hero fend off hordes of “Thirsties” who are trying to drain a pool. There’s also a charmingly retro animation of the Kool-Aid Man’s signature wall-crushing routine. You can play the game online at Archive.org.
9. HE ALSO CONQUERED COMIC BOOKS.
Like any good hero, the Kool-Aid Man also had his own comic book. Marvel Comics’ 'The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man' ran for three issues in 1983 and was available as a free mail-in offer. The Kool-Aid Man’s antics again involved battling the Thirsties, but he also dabbled in time travel. If you’ve ever wondered what the Kool-Aid Man and Benjamin Franklin would say to each other, 'The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man' number two is the comic for you. The line continued later in the '80s with five more issues produced by Archie Comics. The collector’s market for these titles has yet to develop, but the Kool-Aid Man could be a prime candidate for a gritty comic reboot.
10. IT'S GOOD FOR MORE THAN JUST DRINKING.
Even if you’re not drinking it, Kool-Aid can be pretty handy. It’s famously used as a DIY hair dye, but the life hack applications don’t stop there. The citric acid in Kool-Aid makes it a handy toilet bowl cleaner if you leave the powder in overnight, or if you’re worried your toilet is leaking, an envelope of grape in the tank can test for you. If the water in the bowl turns purple before you flush, you’ve got a leak. A packet of lemonade Kool-Aid can even clean your dishwasher. And we thought the Kool-Aid Man was only good at destroying homes.
11. NEBRASKANS HAVE FULLY EMBRACED KOOL-AID.
The drink’s home state revels in its status as the birthplace of millions of pitchers of super-sweet fruit drinks. In 1998, Kool-Aid became the official state soft drink of Nebraska. The Associated Press report on the momentous event speaks to a solemn, dignified occasion: “Gov. Ben Nelson got a hug from the ‘Kool-Aid Man’ at the signing ceremony.”
12. HASTINGS HOSTS AN ANNUAL CELEBRATION OF KOOL-AID.
The drink’s entire home state may be proud, but Hastings, Neb. really goes all-in on its place in Kool-Aid history. The city holds a Kool-Aid Days festival that features beauty pageants, car shows, demonstrations on using Kool-Aid in the kitchen, and, of course, a “Kwickest Kool-Aid Drinking Contest.” This year, 24-year-old Hastings resident Chris Hemberger won his second straight chugging title by downing 32 ounces of Kool-Aid in an astonishing 4.47 seconds.
13. IT'S AN UNLIKELY ALLY OF PICKLES.
Sure, you could drink Kool-Aid, but Southerners have long enjoyed a Kool-Aid delicacy that doesn’t need a glass. Kool-Aid pickles, or Koolickles, are easy to make—just add your favorite flavor Kool-Aid (cherry is the traditional pick) and some sugar to the brine from a jar of dill pickles, slice the pickles for maximum absorption, put everything back in the jar, and let it marinate for a week in the refrigerator. The end result is a garishly colored, salty-sweet pickle with a flavor all its own.
14. DEEP-FRIED KOOL-AID HAS BECOME A STATE FAIR FAVORITE.
from the 2011 state fair circuit brought further proof of Americans’ ingenuity with a deep fryer. Deep-fried Kool-Aid took the country by storm. USA Today described the treat’s origins as “a thick batter with Kool-Aid drink powder.” Once blobs of this concoction hit the fryer’s oil, they turned into a brightly colored treat similar to doughnut holes. If you’re curious about the whole process, YouTube would be delighted to teach you how to make your own deep-fried Kool-Aid.
15. IT DOESN'T HAVE TO STAIN ANYMORE.
Running around with a Kool-Aid mustache or spilling a big glass of Kool-Aid on the carpet are time-honored rites of passage, but in 2005, Kool-Aid made a breakthrough with Kool-Aid Invisible, powders that turned clear when dissolved in water. Life got a little easier for carpets everywhere.