A Surprisingly Disgusting History of Lemonade Stands

One hot afternoon in July of 1941, a young woman—name and age unreported—opened up a lemonade stand in Western Springs, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The “little girl,” as newspaper accounts later described her, plied her friends and passing strangers with refreshing glasses of lemonade in a makeshift stand just outside of her home. She sometimes sampled her own supply.

Within weeks, the county’s health department was knocking on her door. They asked questions about the chain of lemonade custody and her sanitary practices. It turned out that the budding entrepreneur had failed to rinse the glasses she gave to her customers after they had been used. As a result, she had contracted polio, and so had four of her young friends. According to the Associated Press, the outbreak of the disease was no less than the “hottest trail of the deadly disease virus in the history of epidemiology.”

Kids' lemonade stands have long been a symbol of adolescent capitalism. And though contracting a paralyzing viral infection seems a heavy price to pay for patronizing one, as it turns out, these refreshment pop-ups have a long and sordid history. For many, they've been a downright dirty business.

A refreshment stand is set up in Huntington Beach, California

Because the act of peddling lemon-flavored water in the street is not inherently newsworthy, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how, when, and where the practice first originated. We know that people in 11th century Cairo wrote about a drink with lemon juice being sold in open markets. In 17th century France, vendors dispensed lemon water from backpacks, allowing them to follow customers around; their popularity may have been helped in part by the fact that the lemonade was often alcohol-infused. At upscale French cabarets selling fashionable, sweet drinks, proprietors took to calling themselves limonadiers, or lemonaders. Though they sold far more than just booze-fueled lemonade, the label helped distinguish their refined spaces from the seedier wine merchants of the era.

There are scant references made to lemonade stands in America throughout the 1800s. The New York Daily Herald mentioned a stand as part of a “ladies fair” in October 1839; in 1853, a woman operating a stand in Cincinnati reportedly confronted two men who had insulted her, tearing the coattails of one “rowdy” clean off; in 1873, an unnamed student at Cornell University was said to be helping pay his way through college by managing a stand in his student hall.

These were likely earnest enterprises. The same couldn’t be said of the disingenuous peddlers in 1860s New York, who perceived the docking immigrants as easy marks. Rather than invest in quality ingredients, lemonade merchants instead filled dirty wooden or tin pails with a murky substance consisting of water, molasses, and vinegar. The muck was topped with sliced lemon rinds to give it the appearance of something ingestible. For many people looking for a fresh start in America, their first taste of freedom may have literally been a fetid concoction of cheap sugar water.

By 1880, vendors were a common sight throughout New York City [PDF]. In blistering heat, soda fountains and bars often found themselves being outmatched by lemonade stands that had relatively little overhead and could charge just five cents a glass instead of the 15 cents charged by shops. “This cheap lemonade business has come very much to the front in New York within the last year or two, and it is an excellent idea,” The New York Times concluded.

While many of these vendors were adults, the barrier to entry was low enough to entice business minds of all ages. In the 1870s, a Dutch immigrant named Edward Bok—who may have seen and been repulsed by the sludge offered upon his family's entry into the country—noticed that horse carriages passing by his home and heading toward Coney Island often stopped so that the horses could have water and passengers could get a drink at a nearby cigar shop. Bok found it was curious that only the men would go inside the shop, leaving women and children to wait until they arrived at their destination to get a beverage.

Sensing an opportunity, Bok bought a clean pail and attached three hooks to it to hold three glasses. When the horse cars stopped, he jumped on and offered ice water to everyone on board for one penny a glass. Bok made 30 cents for every pail he emptied and did brisk business on weekends. But soon competitors moved in, and Bok was forced to up his game. He began squeezing lemons into water, added sugar, and sold the tastier drink for three cents a glass.

While Bok was far from the only lemonade hustler in the country, he might have been the most influential. When he was profiled in an authorized biography in 1921, The Americanization of Edward Bok, the story of his childhood lemonade business struck a chord. Bok was already a celebrity thanks to his editorial duties with the Ladies Home Journal, and his book won a Pulitzer Prize. If a lemonade stand was good enough for Bok, it was good enough for any kid.

Throughout the 20th century, the stands grew to become allegorical lessons in free enterprise. If a child wanted a bicycle, a simple investment and a work ethic could potentially produce enough income to purchase one. Baked into the business model were lessons in accounting, inventory, and customer testimony—a busy stand invited more onlookers to come and sample the wares.

Kids offer lemonade to kids at a lemonade stand

More recently, some states have cracked down on stands, citing health and safety concerns and forcing a business model involving permits and an understanding of zoning laws. Country Time, which makes lemonade mixes, pledged $60,000 in grants this summer to help kids pay fines related to their stands.

As for the polio-ridden lemonade stand in Western Springs: While unsanitary practices led to five illnesses, researchers also discovered an additional seven people were carriers but showed no symptoms. The outbreak provided valuable information on how easily the virus could be transmitted and how long a carrier could harbor the infection. By 1954, Jonas Salk’s vaccine was about to become widely available, and the March of Dimes—which publicized efforts to eradicate the disease—was endorsing fundraisers [PDF] to purchase vaccine doses and cover treatment costs of those afflicted. In the emergency drive to direct money toward those efforts, teens went door-to-door, hosted bake sales, and sold lemonade.

This Indoor Garden Grows Up to 30 Fruits and Vegetables With Little Maintenance Required

IGWorks
IGWorks

If you want to always have fresh tomatoes and basil on hand without having to visit your nearest farmers' market or devote multiple hours each week to gardening, there's an easier option—no green thumb required!

The iHarvest is a hydroponic gardening system that lets you grow up to 30 varieties of fruits and veggies—including tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, watermelon, and various herbs—right in your kitchen. Powered by 72 watts of low-energy LEDs, the system's lighting and watering functions are fully automated, which keeps maintenance to a minimum.

All you have to do is plant a seed in an apparatus called the media, place the media in a pod, and add water to the iHarvest. The built-in timers do the rest of the work, ensuring that your plants are adequately fed and nourished each day, regardless of the season. After water is pumped to the plant's roots, it runs through a filter and returns to the bottom reservoir of the iHarvest device. The water and nutrients only need replenished once every two weeks, on average.

It's quick, too. Tomatoes are estimated to reach their full size in 10 days, and everything that you harvest will be free of herbicides and pesticides. Hanging plants and fruits like squash and cucumber can be suspended from the iHarvest's trellis, and the vertical design also makes it ideal for people in tight living quarters. The entire system takes up just 2.5 square feet of space, measuring 2 feet, 8 inches wide.

Order the iHarvest now on Kickstarter to get 35 percent off the retail price, which lowers the total cost to $549. And if you want to do some comparison shopping, you may also like the OGarden Smart—an indoor garden that lets you grow up to 90 fruits and vegetables.

17 Delicious Facts About Peeps

Getty Images
Getty Images

You know whether you prefer chicks to bunnies, fresh to stale, or plain to chocolate-covered. But there’s a lot you may not know about Peeps, everyone’s favorite (non-chocolate) Easter candy.

1. It used to take 27 hours to make a Peep.

A candy Peep being made
Getty Images

That was in 1953, when Sam Born acquired the Rodda Candy Company and its line of marshmallow chicks. Back then, each chick was handmade with a pastry tube. Just Born quickly set about automating the process, so that it now takes just six minutes to make a Peep.

2. An average of 5.5 million Peeps are made every day.

Peeps candies being made
Getty Images

All of them at the Just Born factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In one year, the company makes enough peeps to circle the earth—twice!

3. Yellow chicks are the original Peep, and still the favorite.

Boxes of yellow chick Peeps
Getty Images

Yellow bunnies are the second most popular color/shape combination. Pink is the second best-selling color.

4. The recipe has stayed pretty much the same.

Cooking up a batch of Peeps
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The recipe begins with a boiling batch of granulated sugar, liquid sugar, and corn syrup, to which gelatin and vanilla extract are later added. 

5. The equipment has also (mostly) stayed the same.

Peeps candies being made
Getty Images

Since Just Born turned Peeps-making into an automated process, the chicks have been carefully formed by a top-secret machine known as The Depositor. Created by Sam Born’s son, Bob, The Depositor could manufacture six rows of five Peeps apiece in a fraction of the time it took workers to form them by hand. And that same machine that Bob built has been keeping the Peeps flowing ever since. Until rather recently …

In 2014, the company announced that it was planning to renovate its manufacturing plant, including The Depositor. “It’s a little sad,” vice president of sales and marketing Matthew Pye told Candy Industry Magazine at the time. “Bob Born made it from scratch in 1954 and it allowed us to distribute and grow the brand nationally." 

6. The updated equipment means new Peeps innovations could be coming.

Making Peeps at the Just Born factory
Getty Images

“The investment in our marshmallow making process will allow for more efficiency, more consistency, improved quality, and additional innovation capabilities,” co-CEO Ross Born told Candy Industry magazine about the new depositor, which will be able to produce a wider variety of Peeps in all sizes. “The [old] Peeps line did one thing and one thing very well—cranking out chicks day in and day out. Five clusters, just in different colors,” Born said.

7. Peeps used to have wings.

They were clipped in 1955, two years after the first marshmallow chicks hatched, to give the candy a sleeker, more “modern” look.

8. The eyes are the final touch.

A close up of a yellow chick Peep
Getty Images

The final flourish for all of these squishy balls of sweetness is adding the eyes, which are made of carnauba—a non-toxic edible wax (that is also found in some shoe polishes and car waxes, plus many other candies).

9. Peeps may be destructible, but their eyes are not.

Making Peeps at the Just Born factory
Getty Images

In 1999, a pair of scientists at Emory University—dubbed “Peeps Investigators”—decided to test the theory that Peeps are an indestructible food. In addition to a microwave, the pair tested the candy’s vulnerability to tap water, boiling water, acetone, and sulfuric acid (they survived them all). When they upped the ante with some Phenol, the only things that didn’t disappear were the eyes. 

10. They really are everyone's favorite non-chocolate Easter candy.

For more than 20 years now, no other non-chocolate Easter candy has been able to compete with the power of Peeps. With more than 1.5 billion of them consumed each spring, Peeps have topped the list of most popular Easter treats for more than two decades.

11. There are sugar-free Peeps.

Counterintuitive, we know. But in 2007, the first line of sugar-free Peeps hit store shelves.

12. There are also chocolate-covered Peeps.

Chocolate-covered Peeps hit the market in 2010. Today there’s a full line of them for every occasion.

13. Peeps come in a variety of flavors.

Color and shape (i.e. yellow chick) are no longer the only ways to categorize a Peep. They now come in an array of flavors, including fruit punch, sour watermelon, lemon sherbet, blueberry, and pancakes and syrup.

14. Peeps lip balm is a thing.

Yep.

15. On New Year's Eve, a giant Peep is dropped in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.


PEEPS®

The drop is done with a traditional chick that flashes different colors at midnight.

16. Believe it or not, Peeps are not Just Born's best-selling brand.

That honor belongs to Mike and Ike. (Sorry, Peepsters.)

17. They're a boon to a creativity.

Blue chick Peeps
Getty Images

All over the country, Peeps have become the preferred media for a number of highly anticipated annual art contests. (You can check out some of the coolest creations from Westminster, Maryland's PEEPshow here.)

Updated for 2019.

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