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.
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.
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.