Icons of Summer: Kool-Aid and Popsicles

While my childhood was one of humble existence, we were not without some of the middle-class niceties of the times, thanks to a an extremely hard working father and a mother with the uncanny ability to stretch a dollar further than anyone I’ve ever known.

Growing up, I loved just about everything that summer had to offer–fishing, baseball, camping, swimming, and get-togathers with friends and family. One of my favorite summertime pleasures was hearing the jingly notes of “Turkey in the Straw” cutting through the hot afternoon air. The ice cream truck was on its way. Occasionally my mom would slip me a nickel so I could join the pack of young thrashing arms to buy my favorite red Popsicle. I can still remember sitting on the front porch trying to suck down all of that icy, sweet popsicle goodness before it melted.

Popsicle

As the somewhat dubious story goes, one chilly evening in 1905 in the San Francisco Bay city of Oakland, 11-year-old Frank Epperson made himself a cup of powdered soda mix (it’s unclear where he got powdered soda, as I can find no evidence of its existence in 1905) and water and left it on his porch overnight. Temperatures dropped severely during the night and the next morning young Epperson found his concoction completely frozen with the wooden stirrer sticking out. Sampling his icy potion, Epperson realized he had accidently discovered a new delicacy and declared his frozen pop-on-a-stick the “Epsicle.”

While it is said that Epperson realized on that morning in 1905 that he had been blessed with a winning idea, it would be 18 years later before he decided to test market the frozen treat beyond friends in his own neighborhood. In the summer of 1923, Frank took daily batches of his Epsicle to Neptune Beach, an amusement part in nearby Alamada, where he sold all he could make.

Bolstered by this success, the next year Frank decided to patent his “frozen drink on a stick” and expand his fledgling business to a larger market area. By this time, Epperson had children of his own who always referred to the frozen treat as “pop’s sicle.” So at their urging, Frank filed and received his patent in the name of Popsicle instead of Epsicle.

In 1925 Epperson took on the Joe Lowe Company of New York as his business partner and together they began distributing Popsicle across the country. Unfortunately by the end of the decade Frank had fallen on hard times and was forced to sell them his rights to the brand. Epperson later said, “I was flat and had to liquidate all my assets,” adding, ” I haven’t been the same since.” Epperson died in 1983 and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

August 29th is National Cherry (America’s Favorite Flavor) Popsicle Day.

As it turned out, the Lowe Company’s superior marketing genius allowed Popsicle to quickly become a nationwide success. For example, during the height of the depression the company began producing a two-stick version, making it possible for two people to share one Popsicle for just a nickel. Rumor has it that this single move created sales of 8,000 units at New York’s Coney Island in only one day.

In 1989 the Lowe Company sold the Popsicle brand to Unilever who combined it with their already successful Good Humor brand and quickly expanded the lineup beyond its original seven fruity flavors. Today, Unilever sells more than two billion Popsicles a year in a wide array of flavors, ranging from grape and strawberry to mango and avocado, although cherry has always been the most popular. In 1986 the two-stick version was discontinued at the request of moms throughout America, declaring it too messy and difficult to eat.

I rarely ever eat popsicles any more, although my reasons why are not really clear, even to me. Perhaps it’s because one must rush through eating ice pops for fear of them melting and messing up one’s clothes. Perhaps it’s because they took away the iconic two sticks, making them no different than other ice pops. Or perhaps adulthood has simply taken away the thrill and excitement that once overcame me every time I heard the jingly sound of the ice cream truck slowly making its way through the neighborhood.

Kool-Aid

Another of my favorite summertime treats was enjoying an ice-cold “jelly glass” (how many of you remember jelly glasses?) of Kool-Aid. For just five cents a package, plus a cup of sugar, and some tap water, we were able to make two quarts of delicious fruit-flavored beverage–affordable even on my parents’ stringent budget. It seems there was always a pitcher of Kool-Aid goodness in our refrigerator. My favorite flavors were orange and strawberry, but since my father preferred the more grown-up taste of lemon-lime and pink lemonade, that’s what was usually available.

More than 563 million gallons of KOOL-AID are consumed each year, with more than 225 million gallons in the summer.

Edwin Elijah Perkins was born in Lewis, Iowa on January 8, 1889 to store owners David and Kizandra (Kizzie) Perkins. Four years after Edwin’s birth, the Perkinses sold their store in Lewis and moved to a farm some ten miles from Beaver City in Furnas County, Nebraska. There the family lived for seven years in a three-room sod house, surviving extreme heat, droughts, and pestilence through long hours of hard work in the fields, raising livestock, pigs, and chickens.

Then in January of 1900, David Perkins traded the farm for a general store in the small village of Hendley, so young Edwin and his eight brothers and sisters could go to better schools. In the afternoons after school, Edwin began helping his father clerk in the store. One day a family friend, upon returning from shopping in Hastings, brought his father some packages of a new dessert–Jell-O. Edwin was so enthralled with Jell-O that he persuaded his father to carry it in their store.

Bitten by the entrepreneurial bug early on, Edwin responded to a magazine advertisement on how to become a manufacturer. Soon he received the requested information, along with formulas and labels that read “Manufactured by Perkins Products Co.” It wasn’t long before he was in his mother’s kitchen experimenting with medicines, flavorings and other concoctions. By the time Edwin graduated from high school he had developed a line of products which were successfully sold door-to-door, through mail order, and eventually independent agents.

During these early years, Perkins, in his continuing quest to become successful, also bought a small hand printing press on which he printed his own labels and promotional materials, as well as small jobs for other businesses and neighbors. He even published a weekly newspaper he called the Hendley Delphic. And if his Perkins product line, a printing business, and newspaper publishing were not enough, Edwin also became the Hendley postmaster.

In September, 1918, Edwin Perkins married his childhood sweetheart Kathryn Shoemaker, the daughter of Hendley’s only doctor. Edwin and “Kitty,” as Kathryn preferred to be called, were totally devoted to each other in every facet of their lives, including Edwin’s business dealings.

Then in February of 1920, Edwin and Kitty moved eighty miles east to Hastings, where advanced highways and multiple railroads provided a better distribution point for their business. By August of that same year Edwin’s parents also moved to Hastings, where they helped in the couple’s growing business. Over the next two years Perkins Products Co., a true family business employing the entire Perkins family with the exception of sister Faye, moved twice more to accommodate its continued growth.

One of the most popular items in the Perkins lineup was a summertime soft drink called “Fruit-Smack.” Available in six flavors, a four-ounce bottle was so concentrated that a family could make a pitcher full of fruity drink for only a few cents. But Fruit-Smack wasn’t without problems–heavy glass bottles, breakage, and leaky corks. Edwin knew he had to find a solution.

Perkins, remembering his much admired Jell-O, felt that the solution to Fruit-Smack’s problems was to similarly turn it into a dry, concentrated powder, packaged in an envelope, that the consumer could easily rehydrate later. Edwin was also convinced that if he was successful in making Fruit-Smack the easy-to-ship, easy-to-use product he envisioned, it would attract national food brokers and allow him to get out of the mail order business. So by 1927 Perkins and his chemists had developed Kool-Aid’s six initial flavors–raspberry, cherry, grape, orange, root beer, and strawberry.

In his search for a catchy name and sticking to his penchant for hyphenated words (Onor-Maid, Nix-O-Time, Motor-Vigor, Glos-Comb, and Jel-Aid), he came up with the product’s original name, “Kool-Ade,” which was trademarked in 1928. There were however problems with the use of the word “Ade.” Some say government regulators contended that it could only be used with fruit juice products. Others say he was threatened with a lawsuit by another party if he continued to use the original name. For whatever the reason, in 1934 Perkins trademarked a new spelling for his powdered beverage–“Kool-Aid.”

Other major setbacks encountered in the development of Kool-Aid included packaging that would keep the product dry and fresh without coming apart, convincing both local and national food brokers to distribute it, and of course, growth capital. But Edwin’s tenacity, salesmanship, and marketing genius allowed him to overcome all obstacles, and Kool-Aid quickly became a true success.

By 1931, two years after the Great Depression began, demand for Kool-Aid continued to grow. So much in fact that the Perkins Products location in Hastings was bursting at its seams, making a search for new quarters a necessity. So Edwin and his sales manager and new partner Fred Schmitt relocated the Kool-Aid business to a 13,000-square-foot plant in Chicago. Business continued to be strong and three years later the company added 20,000-square-feet to the factory, followed by another expansion in 1939 that doubled capacity.

In June of 1949 the plant moved once more to a 135,000-square-foot facility, plus they added a night shift. The following year Perkins employed 300 factory workers (80% women), 50 office personnel, produced 323 million packets of Kool-Aid, and enjoyed sales of more than 10 million dollars.

On February 16, 1953 Edwin Perkins announced that he had sold Perkins Products to General Foods, who coincidently also owned the Jell-O brand. At the age of 64, after more than 50 years in business, Perkins retired. He and his wife Kitty set up philanthropic foundations and divided their time between homes in Chicago and Miami Beach, where their daughter Nancy lived.

Edwin E. Perkins died in 1961, following a long illness. Kitty Perkins followed sixteen years later. Both are buried in Parkview Cemetery in Hastings, Nebraska.

Kool-Aid drinkers are no longer restricted to just single envelopes of powder mix to which sugar is added to make 2 quarts of beverage. Today, Kool-Aid is available in various sized canisters with sugar included, concentrated sugar-free Kool-Aid liquid that will produce twenty-four 8-ounce glasses of the stuff, and more. Ironically, even Kool-Aid soft drinks have returned. But regardless which Kool-Aid product you choose, two-quarts will definitely cost you more than a nickel–or even the original price of ten-cents.

As for me, it’s probably been at least thirty-five years since I last purchased a package of Kool-Aid. During my sons upbringing, their mother insisted they drink water, tea, or fruit juice, rather than sugary beverages like soda and Kool-Aid. Now that she and I are empty nesters, we keep bottled water, cans of flavored seltzer, and the occasional beer in our frig–no fuss, no muss. But sometimes when I see a Kool-Aid display, or watch a TV commercial, my mind takes me back to the times when on a hot, sultry Texas day, I could hardly wait to suck down an icy cold jelly glass of sweet delicious Kool-Aid.

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Cake Mix: Redefining Baking in America

Growing up in the mid-twentieth century, I observed first-hand a number of food innovations and convenience products that directly affected how the American housewife prepared the family meal. Arguably, the one product that brought about the biggest change was the invention of boxed cake mixes.

I can remember when every pie and cake my mom baked was made from scratch. Then came the fifties and, like other American households, convenience items became commonplace in our home, as well. It seems my mom fell in love with Betty and Duncan, eventually even turning to canned frostings. From those days forward, only after much begging would she make one of her popular scratch cakes, and I’m honestly not sure she didn’t do a little cheating even then.

Boxed cake mixes in America actually got their start in the early 1930s when P. Duff and Sons, a Pittsburg molasses canning company, found itself with a surplus of molasses. Its founder John D. Duff, who had successfully found a way to dehydrate his excess syrup, began searching for a way to utilize his molasses powder. Employing techniques used by the Pearl Milling Company to launch Aunt Jemima’s “just add water” pancake mix, Duff developed a gingerbread cake mix.

Later that year, Duff applied for a U.S. patent for his new invention. In his application, Duff explained that for housewives to go to the expense and inconvenience of maintaining the ingredients needed to bake cake for their family was no longer necessary when they could purchase a can of Duff and Sons gingerbread cake mix for 21 cents a 14-ounce can. Yes, cake mixes were first marketed in cans.

“When I got to France I realized I didn’t know very much about food at all. I’d had those cakes from cake mixes or the ones that have a lot of baking powder in them. A really food French cake doesn’t have anything like that in it – it’s all egg power.” – Julia Child

By the end of 1933 Duff’s baking mix, now available in other flavors including devil’s food and spice, was granted its first patent–no. 1,931,892. However, in an effort to improve its mixes the company had already began tweaking its formula. John became aware that the taste of his cake mix was a bit off due to the use of powdered eggs, so his new formula required housewives to add fresh eggs. Not only did this change resolve the off-taste issue but actually improved the rise and texture of the finished product. On June 13, 1933, Duff filed for his second patent, writing in his application, “The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs and hence the use of dried or powdered egg is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint.” On October 8, 1935, patent no. 2,016,320 was granted.

Probably the most well known myth about cake mix development is that Ernest Dichter, psychologist and the man who coined the phrase “focus group,” was working with General Mills on how to improve cake mix sales. As the story goes, Dichter determined that housewives wanted more involvement in the baking process, so from then on Betty Crocker cake mixes required adding fresh eggs. While Dichter did work with General Mills, he did so in the 1950s, some fifteen years after Duff was granted his patent for eggless cake mix. A later survey determined that although homemakers said they preferred to add their own eggs, they really liked the convenience of those mixes that include eggs.

By the end of World War II and the late 1940s there were more than 200 brands of cake mix, including labels like Swans Down, Dromedary, X-Pert, Helen’s, Joy, Occident, and PY-O-My. Of course, the largest share of the market was held by the big flour companies who had spent the war years getting ready to jump into the cake mix game once our troops were home. Taking a lesson from J. Duff and Sons, flour mills decided they had to do more than just sell flour–convenience was now the name of the game.

“My idea of baking is buying a ready-made cake mix and throwing in an egg.” – Cilla Black

It is interesting that while as previously mentioned American housewives really liked cake mix that included eggs, only Pillsbury stayed with the add water only mix, while GM’s Betty Crocker and Consolidated Mills’ Duncan Hines (later sold to Procter & Gamble) went the add-your-own-fresh-eggs route.

Between 1956 and 1960 cake mix sales began to flatten (increasing only 5% during that time) and many companies shut their doors. The remaining cake mix companies began searching for what went wrong and what was needed to kick-start sales. Enter marketing psychologist Ernest Dichter, who proclaimed the problem to be frosting, not eggs. Since baking the cake was so simple, the housewife wanted to make the baked goods their own through cake decorating and other creativeness. Soon photographs on cake mix boxes and in magazines began to showcase elaborate cake constructions and over the top icing techniques. It is interesting that a product developed to save time has since become a culinary time-filler.

Today, boxed cake mixes are a staple in every supermarket, household pantry, and yes, many commercial bakeries in the United States, as well as most developed countries in the world. And with American home bakers using more than 60 million cake mixes a year, the homemade scratch cake is quite an endangered species.

Make It: Homemade Cake Mix