The Unusual Origins of Pink Lemonade

It’s a pretty scary story. It does involve clowns, after all

From unsavory beginnings to a refreshing treat, pink lemonade has remained a summer staple. (iuliia_n / iStock)
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It's sweet, colorful and synonymous with summertime. Pink lemonade has been a part of American culture longer than backyard barbecues and above-ground swimming pools, but have you ever stopped to consider why the go-to lemonade has that pastel hue? While pink lemons do exist (they were first discovered on a typical Eureka lemon tree in 1930), their light pink flesh juices clear. Instead, it turns out the likely origins of this popular beverage is a tale as unexpected as its own rosy and unnatural shade.

Although the history of traditional lemonade—a blend of lemon juice, water and sugar—in America dates back to the early arrival of European immigrants, with recipes appearing in the States as early as the 17th century, the genesis of pink lemonade is a bit more recent. By the 19th century, a growing ice trade made chilled drinks increasingly popular, and as more people experienced the thrill of enjoying a sweet, cold beverage on a sweltering day, lemonade hit its stride. Around the same time, traveling circuses were taking off. People were coming from miles away to experience death-defying high-wire acts and see such oddities as human mermaids, contortionists and fire-breathers. It only makes sense that they'd want their drinks to be fantastical as well. The earliest known mention of pink lemonade comes from an 1879 article in West Virginia’s Wheeling Register, explicitly linking the two.

According to Josh Chetwynd, author of the New York Times best-selling How the Hot Dog Got its Bun: Accidental Discoveries And Unexpected Inspirations That Shape What We Eat And Drink, there are multiple stories about the origin of pink lemonade, but there are two that he finds most plausible—largely because of their circus roots. The first, he says, is a 1912 New York Times obituary for Henry E. Allott , a Chicago native who ran away to the circus in his early teens. Allott is believed to have 'invented' pink lemonade after accidentally dropping red-colored cinnamon candies in a vat of traditional lemonade. Adhering to the old circus adage 'the show must go on,' Allott simply sold the pink-hued beverage as is.

A second, more stomach-churning theory comes Harvey W. Root's 1921 book, The Ways of the Circus: Being the Memories and Adventures of George Conklin Tamer of Lions. Root's main subject, George, claims his brother Pete Conklin came up with pink lemonade in 1857 while selling lemonade at the circus. Conklin ran out of water and thinking on the fly, grabbed a tub of dirty water in which a performer had just finished wringing out her pink-colored tights. In true circus form, Conklin didn't miss a beat. He marketed the drink as his new 'strawberry lemonade,' and a star was born. “From then on sales doubled,” writes Root, “...[and] no first class circus was without pink lemonade.”

In the end, “No one really knows which story is accurate,” says Chetwynd, “but [of course] the timing of Conklin's tale gives that yarn the advantage.” Chetwynd points out that there's a legendary quality to both stories, a fact that's unsurprising, he says, given that “it seems pretty clear pink lemonade was either created—or at least popularized—by the circus.”

Despite the drink's unsavory beginnings, consumers caught on quickly that lemonade could be both pink and nutritious. As early as 1892, E.E. Kellogg's Science in the Kitchen features a pink lemonade recipe calling for “a half a cup of fresh or canned strawberry, red raspberry, currant or cranberry juice” in lieu of cinnamon candies or dirty wash water; and these days there are 'pink' lemonades made with watermelon, strawberry, raspberry or grenadine—a sweet, tart syrup traditionally derived from pomegranates.

Still, the bulk of global-brand pink lemonade is pink in color alone, a tint derived from concentrated grape juice or extract. If the taste of pink and traditional lemonade are exactly the same, why does the former remain so popular? When my inquiries to Minute Maid and Newman's Own went unanswered I reached out to Sally Augustin, a practicing environmental psychologist who focuses on the ways elements like shapes and colors influence our lives.

“The color of pink lemonade is relaxing,” she says. “It's [a pink] that's not very saturated but relatively bright. In my experience, traditional lemonade has no real color.” It seems flavor and nutrients have nothing to do with pink lemonade's consumer longevity. In the end, people just want to feel they can unwind, and with a color that's so calming and youthful—pink lemonade is the perfect drink with which to do so.

So today Conklin's and Allott's legacies live on. As for the men themselves? In reference to Allott, the New York Post put it best: “The man who invented pink lemonade has crossed the river...where it may be hoped there are no pure-food advocates to harass him for the sins committed in his name.” 

About Laura Kiniry

Laura Kiniry is a San Francisco-based freelance writer specializing in food, drink, and travel. She contributes to a variety of outlets including American Way, O-The Oprah Magazine, BBC.com, and numerous AAA pubs.

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