The legacy of ‘Kool-Aid Man’ Edwin Perkins

Kool-Aid founder Edwin Perkins.

One of the world’s most famous soft drink mixes was born here in Hastings.

It was invented by Edwin Perkins, whose family moved to southwest Nebraska around 1900. Perkins, who was driven by a love of chemistry and the desire to create things, experimented at home, mixing homemade concoctions in his mother’s kitchen.

While working in the family’s general store in Hendley, he was introduced to a new dessert mix by childhood friend and future wife Kitty Shoemaker. The product, which came in six flavors, was called Jell-O. Perkins convinced his father to carry the dessert line in the store.

After pondering the idea of creating his own line of unique products, he sent away for a kit called “How to Become a Manufacturer.” It was the first step toward launching his first soft drink idea, a liquid concentrate called “Fruit Smack.”

Upon graduating from high school, Perkins published a weekly newspaper, handled print jobs and served as postmaster. He founded a mail order business called “Perkins Products Co.” to sell some of his best inventions by mail.

By the time he married Shoemaker in 1918, he had developed a product to help smokers kick the habit, called “Nix-O-Tine.” To meet demand for the product, the couple moved to Hastings to take advantage of the city’s bustling rail service for product distribution.

Fruit Smack was originally offered in a concentrated liquid mix. The four-ounce bottle was fashioned to give families an affordable way to enjoy the product. But the cost to ship bottles proved costly, and breakage was an all-too-frequent occurrence.

Perkins developed a method that enabled him to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack and pack the powder produced in the process in envelopes. He called the new product, Kool-Ade, and offered the first packets for 10 cents a piece in 1927. It came in six flavors: strawberry, cherry, grape, lemon-lime, raspberry and orange.

Because government regulations prohibited use of the term “Ade” unless a product contained juice, Kool-Ade became Kool-Aid.

By 1929, Kool-Aid was being distributed nationwide to grocery stores and food brokers. Because of its immense popularity, Perkins decided to discontinue other items being marketed at the time and devote his entire focus on producing Kool-Aid.

In 1931, he moved production of Kool-Aid to Chicago to be closer to supplies and improved distribution opportunities.

Despite the Great Depression, Kool-Aid products thrived, largely because of Perkins’ decision to cut the price of a packet in half to 5 cents. It was during this time that Kool-Aid stands began popping up across the country.

Following the end of World War II, Perkins expanded the operation to include 300 production workers. By 1950, demand had grown to nearly one million packets produced daily.

Perkins sold Kool-Aid to General Foods in 1953. Shortly thereafter, the popular Smiling Face Pitcher was introduced in print advertisements. Pre-sweetened Kool-Aid was added to the mix in 1964 and later redeveloped in 1970.

Kraft Foods eventually acquired General Foods to become owners of Kool-Aid. Refining the old pitcher design, Kraft introduced Kool-Aid Man and other variations on the product, including Kool-Pumps and Kool Bursts.

Today, Kool-Aid is the official soft drink of Nebraska. The Perkins Foundation has left the family’s mark in and around Hastings, with gifts to Hastings College, Mary Lanning HealthCare, Good Samaritan Village, and Hastings Museum.

Perkins died in 1961; his wife, in 1977. Both are buried in Hastings.

Hastings Museum houses many vintage Kool-Aid artifacts in its “Kool-Aid Discover the Dream” exhibit, including the original Kool-Aid Man costume worn in early television commercials.

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