Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream
We see the spectrum of beverage self-glorification as a rainbow of refreshment. On one end are dazzling uber-attractions such as the New World of Coca-Cola; on the other are muted, homespun efforts such as Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream. The latter occupies one-half of the lower floor of the city museum in Hastings, Nebraska. Kool-Aid was first manufactured in Hastings, an event that is recorded with pride (though not much dazzle) by a small plaque and sign on a downtown building.
The "dream" that visitors are invited to discover belonged to Edwin E. Perkins, a home chemist with the heart of a patent medicine huckster. His tiny Perkins Products Company sold nostrums of questionable merit, such as Nix-O-Tine Tobacco Remedy and "Motor-Vigor," a gasoline additive. One of his most popular products was Fruit Smack, a flavored syrup sold in glass bottles. But the bottles leaked and broke, their weight added to shipping costs, and the syrup eventually spoiled. Perkins, who admired Jell-O, reasoned that if he could remove the water, he could eliminate the bottle. He succeeded in 1927 and called the resulting powder Fruit-Ade, then Kool-Ade, and finally Kool-Aid. It soon eclipsed sales of all other Perkins Products combined, and Edwin packed up his company and moved to Chicago.
Hastings was left at the Kool-Aid altar, but there is no bitterness here, which fits a story as sweet as this one.
Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream's cheerful cartoon guide is the "Kool-Aid Kid," the product's original mascot, outfitted in an alpine hat and lederhosen. Also guiding visitors from room to room is a fiber optic, candy-colored Kool-Aid "river," running under the floor and up the walls in translucent pipes.
Kool-Aid, we learn, prospered because Perkins never stopped selling it. He tried everything, most of which is on display here. The Kool-Aid Adventure Club and the patriotic Kool-Aid Scouts of the Stars and Stripes -- which gave away decoder rings and stylish paper hats -- were conceived to turn kids into repeat purchasers. A sign notes with pride that during the Depression a packet of Kool-Ade cost more than a loaf of bread, but people bought it anyway.
Colorful Kool-Aid pennants hang from the ceiling, exhorting mothers to "Try Kool-Aid with cottage cheese and gingerbread" and "Serve Kool-Aid with salmon loaf and butter wafers." Displays reveal long-forgotten "off-season" products such as Kool-Aid bubble gum, Kool-Aid milk shakes, Kool-Aid mixes for puddings, pies, and ice cream. Perkins even went back to bottles and sold Kool-Aid as a carbonated soda.
A case full of promotional items lines one wall: canteens, coolers, clocks, frisbees, air-fresheners, kids' suspenders. "Customers bought huge amounts of Kool-Aid to get premiums," notes a sign. "That was their beauty. Everyone won."
When Perkins turned 64 he sold his company to General Foods (which had also purchased his beloved Jell-O). The corporation retired most of Kool-Aid's helter-skelter sales efforts and replaced them with what would become an advertising icon: a frosty pitcher with a finger-drawn smile and apostrophe eyeballs.
Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream leads you to this point, where you can ponder the museum's star exhibit: the first Kool-Aid Man suit. Bulky and looming, this anthropomorphic creature was General Foods' dream, not Edwin Perkins'. It stands, sealed like a copy of the Constitution, inside a plexiglass box that represents the space formerly occupied by a yellow brick wall. Kool-Aid Man is posed as if he has just smashed this wall to rubble, with his stubby, cherry red arms raised in triumph.
Kool-Aid Man was built for destruction, not hugs, which hindered his usefulness as a General Foods goodwill ambassador. Rebecca Matticks, the Hastings Museum director, told us that the museum tried to have a staffer wear the suit for photo-ops, but that it was too heavy, too hot, and that it cut into human shoulders. "After about ten minutes," she said, "you'd had enough."
General Foods retired the first Kool-Aid Man around 1980, replacing him with a lighter, puffier model, fluffed by air from an interior fan. This successor somehow continued to bust through masonry on TV commercials (and he also left his footprints in Hastings), but any kid with a sugar addiction could tell you that such macho demonstrations were bogus. If you want to see the real embodiment of the power that fueled Kool-Aid Acid Tests, you have to come here.
Rebecca told us that Nebraska "marketing people" once visited Hastings from the state capital and suggested that, "Maybe you could re-name your town 'Kool-Aid, Nebraska.'" She politely declined the offer, but she is open to the idea of a giant Kool-Aid pitcher fountain that tips and spills multicolored water.
And although the Museum has a photo-op of a kid-made Kool-Aid drink stand, it's unlikely that the beverage will ever be served here, even though the museum's visitors expect it. Kool-Aid, Rebecca, told us, is "sticky and messy and it stains," qualities that don't mix well with museums, no matter how otherwise unconditional is their support.