Growing up, Kool-Aid was a summertime essential. It had all the sugar a kid could ever want and more, and it’s still one of the cheapest ways to quench your thirst. In the early days, a packet of the now-famous powdery mix was priced at 10 cents for a pitcher’s worth of punch. Today it’ll set you back a quarter. Can we get an “Oh yeah!” for the budget beverage? Kool-Aid has been an American staple for more than 90 years, but there are 15 things you may not know about the history behind this iconic fruit-flavored drink.
Before he invented Kool-Aid in 1927, chemist Edwin Perkins sold over-the-counter medicines and household products door to door and by mail order. One of the most popular items was called “Fruit-Smack,” a fruit-flavored liquid concentrate. To reduce shipping costs, Perkins made a version in powder form and called it “Kool-Ade.” In 1934, the mix was renamed “Kool-Aid.”
When Perkins was a preteen, he worked at the general store owned by his family after school. As rumor has it, a friend popped by with Jell-O, which then came in “six delicious flavors” — orange, lemon, strawberry, lemon, lime and cherry. He begged his father to stock it on store shelves. Later on, Perkins invented his own six original Kool-Aid flavors: cherry, grape, lemon-lime, orange, raspberry and root beer.
Since Kool-Aid is Hastings’ claim to fame, there’s a weekend-long festival in its honor every summer. Attractions include the Hastings Museum (where you can find a Kool-Aid exhibit), watermelon seed spitting contests, Kool-Aid chugging contests, beauty pageants, 5K fun runs, boat races, car shows, country concerts, parades, marching bands, food trucks with all the greasy good stuff like funnel cakes, barbecue and ice cream, and all-you-can-drink Kool-Aid from the world’s largest Kool-Aid stand.
Technically, he came into the picture in the summer of 1954. He was illustrated by art director Marvin Potts, who was inspired by his young son’s smiley face drawings on a frosted window. Back then, the mascot was simply called “Pitcher Man.” Twenty years later, he was rebranded as the Kool-Aid Man — a live-action, walking, talking, 6-foot-tall pitcher of cherry drink eager to bust down any wall in his way. His famous catchphrase is, of course, “Oh yeah!”
In the 1980s, the Kool-Aid Man appeared in two video games for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision consoles. He also had his own comic series called “The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man.” The first three issues were produced by Marvel Comics from 1983 to 1985, and then Archie Comics ran issues four through seven from 1987 to 1990.
For 15 years, the Kool-Aid Man was played by veteran voiceover actor Frank Simms, also known for his work as the bug-eyed Craver for Honeycomb cereal. He did backup vocals for David Bowie, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Chaka Khan and Madonna among many other talented musicians. You may have even heard him sing in skits and with the band on “Saturday Night Live.” Richard Berg, Brock Powell and Pat Duke have also assumed the role of the Kool-Aid Man.
This big smiling pitcher of cherry drink is Hollywood material. He’s made several appearances in “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) and “Robot Chicken” (voiced by Seth Green).
In 2011, Time Magazine (beloved today for its 100 Most Influential People list) crowned the Kool-Aid Man as one of the creepiest product mascots of all time. “Our biggest gripe with Kool-Aid Man: Why did he have to cause such a mess every time he entered the scene?” writer Nick Carbone asked. He then quoted comedian Dane Cook, who once said, “I don’t like it when juice wears tights.”
In the 1990s, it was trendy to dye your hair with Kool-Aid, mostly because it was way cheaper than a trip to the salon. The late Kurt Cobain used it to color his blonde locks a vibrant red in 1992. Though we had presumed this fad faded with time, it appears that people are still using Kool-Aid to dye their hair today. Because it stains so easily, the drink mix is also used to make clay, watercolors and Easter egg dye.
OK, so you can actually see the product, but the powder is transparent when it dissolves into water. Kool-Aid Invisible won’t stain your upper lip, teeth, clothes or carpet. Messy spills, who? That Tide To Go pen can take the day off.
In Guyana on November 18, 1978, cult leader Jim Jones led more than 900 men, women and children to their deaths in the mass suicide known as the Jonestown Massacre. Jones — the self-proclaimed messiah of the Peoples Temple — promised his followers utopia if they drank cyanide-laced grape-flavored punch. This inspired the metaphor “drink the Kool-Aid,” referring to any display of reckless devotion. Various sources cite that the fatal cocktail was actually made with Flavor Aid (a similar product), although both brands were allegedly photographed at the scene.
When the Great Depression began, the demand for Kool-Aid skyrocketed. It was a staple in practically every American home. To help families in a time of extreme financial instability, Perkins lowered the price from 10 cents a package to just five cents, and it stayed that way for years. A marketing campaign cleverly billed the drink as the “budget beverage.”
Kool-Aid pickles, also known as “Koolickles,” are uber popular in the South. These used to be available exclusively at gas stations, but a fruit punch-flavored version called “Tropickles” has made its way to Walmart. You can DIY these bizarre neon-colored cucumbers by adding sugar and your favorite flavor of Kool-Aid to a jar of pickle slices or spears. Let it marinate for a week or so and you’re good to go. If that’s not your thing, we don’t blame you. Koolickles have nothing on these other Southern foods the rest of the world needs to try.
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