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.

5 Simple Ways to Upgrade Your Green Bean Casserole

iStock.com/bhofack2
iStock.com/bhofack2

Green bean casserole became a fixture of Thanksgiving spreads shortly after Dorcas Reilly invented the dish in 1955. The classic recipe, which includes Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s French fried onions, is a sacred piece of Americana—but there's nothing stopping you from playing around with it this Thanksgiving. Just brace yourself for skeptical looks from your more traditional relatives when these variations hit the table.

1. USE HOMEMADE FRIED ONION RINGS.

Green bean casserole typically calls for crispy fried onion bits from a can—and that's fine if you're pressed for time on the big day. But if you're looking to make your casserole taste unforgettable, it's hard to beat to fresh onion rings fried at home. Homemade onion rings are more flavorful than the store-bought stuff and they provide an eye-popping topper for your dish. If you're interested in making onion rings part of your Thanksgiving menu, this recipe from delish will walk you through it.

2. ADD SOME GOUDA.

This recipe from Munchies gives the all-American green bean casserole some European class with shallots, chanterelles, and smoked gouda. Some family members may object to adding a pungent cheese to this traditional dish, but tell them to wait until after they taste it to judge.

3. LIGHTEN IT UP.

As is the case with any recipe that calls for a can of creamy condensed soup, green bean casserole is rarely described as a "light" bite. Some people like the heavy richness of the dish, but if you're looking to give diners a lighter alternative, this recipe from Food52 does the trick. Instead of cream of mushroom soup, it involves a dressing of crème fraîche, sherry vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Hazelnuts and chives provide the crunch in place of fried onions. It may be more of a salad than a true casserole, but the spirit of the classic recipe is alive in this dish.

4. MIX IN SOME BACON.

Looking to make your green bean casserole even more indulgent this Thanksgiving? There are plenty of recipes out there that will help you do so. This "jazzed-up" version from Taste of Home includes all the conventional ingredients of a green bean casserole with some inspired additions. Crumbled bacon and water chestnuts bring the crunch, and Velveeta ups the cheesy decadence factor to an 11.

5. TURN IT INTO A TART.

If your Thanksgiving menu is looking heavy on the side dishes, consider making your green bean casserole into an appetizer. This green bean and mushroom tart from Thanksgiving & Co. has all the flavors of the traditional casserole baked on an easy-to-eat tart. A tart is also a tasty option if you're looking to repurpose your green bean casserole leftovers the day after.

'Turkey on the Table' Helps You Give Thanks—and Fight Hunger

Turkey on the Table
Turkey on the Table

Between planning a menu and figuring out how to thaw a 20-pound turkey in 48 hours, hosts may not have time to think about much else this Thanksgiving. But Turkey on the Table is a little something extra that's worth the effort: It's a fun way to get guests thinking about what they're grateful for—and it may lead to a new tradition for you and your family.

Turkey on the Table can be displayed in your foyer, on your dining room table, or in any other visible spot in your home. It comes with paper "feathers" with room for you and your guests to each jot down what you're grateful for this year. After filling out a feather, add it to the back of the turkey and keep going until the bird is fully dressed.

You can do this with members of your household, adding one new thing you're grateful for each day leading up to Thanksgiving, or wait until the actual holiday and have your guests fill out the feathers and read them aloud before enjoying the meal. Turkey on the Table—the brainchild of two moms who wanted to teach their young children the importance of gratitude—encourages you to make the activity your own, whether you're using it at home, at work, or in the classroom.

In addition to a knit turkey, a marker, and 13 feathers, each Turkey on the Table kit comes with a picture book telling the story of the tradition. The $40 purchase also provides 10 meals for people in need through Feeding America, the country's largest hunger relief organization. The organization has donated more than 834,000 meals since its inception in 2014, and is aiming to reach 1 million meals in 2018.

Turkey on the Table kits, as well as replacement feathers, can be purchased on the organization's website, at major retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond, or via Amazon.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER