The History of Kool-Aid

Edwin Perkins invented the popular flavored drink in the 1920s

Young Girl Helping her Mother Pour Juice for her Friends
stephanie phillips / Getty Images

Kool-Aid is a household name today. Nebraska named Kool-Aid as its official state drink in the late 1990s, while Hastings, Nebraska, the city where the powdered drink was invented, "celebrates a yearly summer festival called Kool-Aid Days on the second weekend in August, in honor of their city's claim to fame," notes Wikipedia. If you're an adult, you likely have memories of drinking the powdered beverage on hot, summer days as a child.

But, the story of Kool-Aid's invention and rise to popularity is an interesting one—literally a rags-to-riches story.

Fascinated by Chemistry

"Edwin Perkins (Jan. 8, 1889–July 3, 1961) was always fascinated by chemistry and enjoyed inventing things," notes the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History, in describing the inventor of the drink and its most famous resident. As a boy, Perkins worked in his family's general store, which—among other thinigs—sold a fairly new product called Jell-O.

The gelatine dessert featured six flavors at the time, produced from a powdered mix. This got Perkins to thinking about creating powdered-mix drinks. "When his family moved to southwest Nebraska at the turn of the (20th) century, young Perkins experimented with homemade concoctions in his mother’s kitchen and created the Kool-Aid story."

Perkins and his family moved to Hastings in 1920, and in that city in 1922, Perkins invented the "Fruit Smack," the forerunner of Kook-Aid, which he sold mainly via mail order.

Perkins renamed the drink Kool Ade and then Kool-Aid in 1927, the Hastings Museum notes.

All in Color for a Dime

"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," notes the Hastings Museum.

"In 1929, Kool-Aid was distributed nationwide to grocery stores by food brokers. It was a family project to package and ship the popular soft drink mix around the country."

Perkins was also selling other products by mail order—including a mixture to help smokers give up tobacco— but by 1931, the demand for the drink "was so strong, other items were dropped so Perkins could concentrate solely on Kool-Aid," the Hastings museum notes, adding that he eventually moved production of the drink to Chicago.

Surviving the Depression

Perkins survived the Great Depression years by dropping the price for a packet of Kool-Aid to just 5¢—which was considered a bargain even during those lean years. The price reduction worked, and by 1936, Perkins' company was posting more than $1.5 million in annual sales, according to Kool-Aid Days, a website sponsored by Kraft Foods.

Years later, Perkins sold his company to General Foods, which is now part of Kraft Foods, making him a rich man, if a bit sad to cede control of his invention. "On Feb. 16, 1953, Edwin Perkins called all his employees together to tell them that on May 15, ownership of Perkins Products would be taken over by General Foods," notes the Kool-Aid Days website.

"In a chatty informal way, he traced the history of the company, and its six delicious flavors, and how fitting it was now that Kool-Aid would join Jell-O in the General Foods family."