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.

A Shrine to Brine: The Mysterious Case of Missouri's Highway Pickle Jar

iStock.com/MorePixels
iStock.com/MorePixels

No one knows how it started. No one knows who was responsible. Some may even have dismissed it as an aberration, a glitch in the scenery that would soon be corrected. But eventually, drivers in and around Des Peres, Missouri who took a highway off-ramp connecting I-270 North to Manchester Road began to notice that a jar of pickles was sitting on a dividing barrier on the ramp. And it wasn’t going anywhere.

Since 2012, the pickle jar has confounded drivers and internet sleuths alike, according to Atlas Obscura. Some have speculated that someone was trying to send a secret message or share a private joke. Perhaps someone pulling off to the side due to car trouble felt the need to place the brine-filled jar on the concrete wall and then forgot about it. Maybe someone thought it would be a kind of three-dimensional graffiti, incongruous amid the bustling traffic. Maybe it’s an indictment of commerce.

Whatever the case, once the pickles appeared, advocates refused to let them go. Jars that end up toppled over or otherwise damaged are replaced. Sometimes they reappear in protective Tupperware or with a holiday-themed bow. Sightings are photographed for posterity and posted on a Facebook fan page devoted to the jar, which currently has over 4200 members and has morphed from a place to theorize about the mysterious jar's origins to a place where people swap pickle-related recipes and stories.

There are dry spells—no one has posted of a pickle sighting in several months—but followers remain optimistic the jar will continue to remain a presence in Des Peres even if the motivation for placing them near the roadway remains as murky as the briny juice inside.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Why the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich Has Been on the McDonald's Menu for Nearly 60 Years

McDonald's has introduced and quietly killed many dishes over the years (remember McDonald's pizza?), but there's a core group of items that have held their spot on the menu for decades. Listed alongside the Big Mac and McNuggets is the Filet-O-Fish—a McDonald's staple you may have forgotten about if you're not the type of person who orders seafood from fast food restaurants. But the classic sandwich, consisting of a fried fish filet, tartar sauce, and American cheese on a bun, didn't get on the menu by mistake—and thanks to its popularity around Lent, it's likely to stick around.

According to Taste of Home, the inception of the Filet-O-Fish can be traced back to a McDonald's franchise that opened near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1959. Back then the restaurant offered beef burgers as its only main dish, and for most of the year, diners couldn't get enough of them. Things changed during Lent: Many Catholics abstain from eating meat and poultry on Fridays during the holy season as a form of fasting, and in the early 1960s, Cincinnati was more than 85 percent Catholic. Fridays are supposed to be one of the busiest days of the week for restaurants, but sales at the Ohio McDonald's took a nosedive every Friday leading up to Easter.

Franchise owner Lou Groen went to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc with the plan of adding a meat alternative to the menu to lure back Catholic customers. He proposed a fried halibut sandwich with tartar sauce (though meat is off-limits for Catholics on Fridays during Lent, seafood doesn't count as meat). Kroc didn't love the idea, citing his fears of stores smelling like fish, and suggested a "Hula Burger" made from a pineapple slice with cheese instead. To decide which item would earn a permanent place on the menu, they put the two sandwiches head to head at Groen's McDonald's one Friday during Lent.

The restaurant sold 350 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches that day—clearly beating the Hula Burger (though exactly how many pineapple burgers sold, Kroc wouldn't say). The basic recipe has received a few tweaks, switching from halibut to the cheaper cod and from cod to the more sustainable Alaskan pollock, but the Filet-O-Fish has remained part of the McDonald's lineup in some form ever since. Today 300 million of the sandwiches are sold annually, and about a quarter of those sales are made during Lent.

Other seafood products McDonald's has introduced haven't had the same staying power as the Filet-O-Fish. In 2013, the chain rolled out Fish McBites, a chickenless take on McNuggets, only to pull them from menus that same year.

[h/t Taste of Home]

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