In the 1920s, Edwin Perkins and his wife Kitty ran a mail order business out of Hastings, Nebraska. Mail order was a popular way for isolated rural families to find modern goods. One of the Perkins' best-selling products was a flavored drink syrup named "Fruit Smack" that they sold and shipped in four-ounce glass bottles. But it was difficult and expensive to ship the bottles by mail. The glass was heavy and often broke or leaked.
In 1927, Perkins borrowed an idea from Jell-O brand gelatin. He changed the Fruit Smack liquid into a concentrated powdered fruit drink and packaged it in small, neat envelopes and called it "Kool-Ade." The product sold well and was soon renamed "Kool-Aid."
The drink mix was produced in Hastings and sold nationally for 10 cents a packet. But as the Depression deepened, even 10-cents became a luxury. Perkins cut the price of Kool-Aid in half so most Depression-era families could still afford it. Soon, children in hundreds of small towns set up stands to sell Kool-Aid.
In the 1930s, railroads were the dominant transportation method, and in 1931 Perkins moved his operation to Chicago where there were better rail connections than Hastings. About the same time, the company dropped production of all other products so they could concentrate on the drink mix.
The company continued to grow, but growth slowed during World War II when sugar was rationed. When rationing ended, demand skyrocketed. The Chicago factory was expanded, and by 1950, 300 workers produced nearly a million packets of Kool-Aid each day.
In 1953, Perkins sold the company to General Foods. Within a year, the popular Smiling Face Pitcher was introduced on the package cover and ads. More flavors and versions of the product were added. Finally, Kraft Foods acquired by General Foods, and Kraft currently markets the brand.
Edwin and Kitty Perkins returned to Hastings often and are both buried there now. The Hastings Museum has an extensive Kool-Aid collection and exhibit.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.