How Kids Cornered the Market on Lemonade

The tangy tale of how America’s children learned to squeeze life for all it’s worth

an illustration of a kid at lemonade stand with man in the background at lemonade cart
Illustration by Jason Ralsh

In the fall of 1839, New York City’s Apollo saloon hosted a “Ladies Fair,” complete with live music, displays of artisan goods and, of course, refreshments. As the Daily Herald reported, “From the post office to the lemonade stand, bright eyes and smiling faces peered forth, as if heaven had at last been let loose and got a holiday.” This rhapsodic description of a sun-kissed fete is also the first recorded mention of that most American of fixtures, the pop-up vendor hawking lemonade. Though today’s kids might not know it, their operation is the result of 200 years of sweat and ingenuity. Since lemonade stands first began spreading across the country in the 19th century, they’ve served as grifters’ street hustles, legitimate cash cows and instruments of charity. They’ve also become increasingly dominated by pipsqueak entrepreneurs, who thereby learn what one can accomplish through sheer pluck.

The American lemonade business began in the mid-1800s, just at the Industrial Revolution’s peak. Lemonade vendors infiltrated New York’s thriving street food scene—and some of them were pretty dodgy. One journalist complained of dirty-looking lemonade composed of molasses, vinegar and water. On the other hand, many New Yorkers praised these new quaffing opportunities: Before, a “thirsty soul” would’ve paid 15 cents for a glass in some barroom, the New York Times reported in 1880, whereas now, “a customer can have a glass of ice-cold lemonade, made before his eyes, for five cents.”

Back then, though, selling lemonade was a grown-up’s business. For one thing, the average child of the era didn’t have much time to experiment with entrepreneurship. Daniel Cook, professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden, says that in many poor families at the time, children were laborers who obeyed, not self-starting retailers: They worked either in industry—as clothing manufacturers, newsies, even miners—or at home, tending their family’s farm or caring for siblings. “There was no sense of being able to afford 10 to 12 years of nonproductive life for a child in the family, like we have now,” Cook says. It was only after the turn of the century that the typical lemonade vendor got younger, as upward economic trends led to freer children.

In the early 1900s, the Industrial Revolution gave way to the Progressive Era, and with it emerged a new middle class. As job conditions and wages improved, many Americans decamped from cities to the suburbs, where their children had much more space—and much more time. Americans became less worried about their children’s utility and more attentive to their development and happiness. By 1918, every state had passed laws mandating that children attend school. This meant the emergence of summer vacation, and as children began to seek both pocket change and entertainment, the lemonade stand—offering the chance to play at business, and for a cash reward, no less—presented itself as an apt activity.

a black and white photo of workers in Alaska taking a break at a lemonade stand
A lemonade stand in Alaska, 1916, helmed by two adult men—right around the time when child entrepreneurs were beginning to cement their dominance in the industry. Library of Congress

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Across the country, kids took up the pitcher—sometimes most charitably: In 1910, the Indianapolis News lauded three young girls whose lemonade sales “realized 85 cents for the babies of Cheeryvale.” In 1915, some children in St. Louis raised $3—around $91 in today’s money—during a summer fundraiser for a charity providing milk to poor infants, and by 1921, lemonade stands run by children were a main revenue stream for the event. A widely circulated bedtime tale of the period featured a pair of anthropomorphic young rabbits, Buster and Duster, who set up a lemonade stand in the woods, expecting to earn enough to purchase “‘an automobile, maybe.’ … ‘Or an airship.’” A lemonade stand was capacious enough for dreams of all kinds.

Of course, the whole “run-by-children” thing isn’t always conducive to safe practices, and there have been some public health scares over the years: In the 1940s, one little girl accidentally caused a polio outbreak by failing to wash her cups. In more recent years, a dozen young lemonade vendors in states ranging from New York to California made news when local authorities cracked down on their unlicensed driveway businesses. But legislators have stepped in to mount a hearty defense of the lemonade stand. In recent years, Georgia and Texas both passed laws ensuring that lemonade stands would be free of most regulation. Pennsylvania and New York have called for the same. One state senator grew quite passionate in asserting the need to “protect the entrepreneurial dreams of children.”

The lemonade stand lost some of its practical value over time—Americans can now buy lemonade in bulk at any supermarket or convenience store. It’s also not as common anymore: Forty percent of baby boomers reported running a stand as a child. Today, as Cook says, many parents have pulled their children back from the public sphere for safety concerns.

But the lemonade stand remains every American child’s birthright. Though most states still require a permit to run one, the public tends collectively to exempt streetside lemonade purveyors from adhering to the law. Not because kids make better lemonade than Minute Maid, but because we want to encourage their dreams. The resulting enterprise—child-run, unlicensed and tax-free—held on throughout history, becoming a summertime mainstay animated by a sense of heady possibility.

When I was a kid, my brother and I ran an annual lemonade stand from the foot of our driveway in Michigan. The cars would pull in from the main road, directed by our taped-up signs, and neighbors bought our Dixie cups sloshing with powdery lemonade. I preferred the afternoons when we packed up our supplies and walked our change-filled pockets to the drugstore to buy slushies. But sometimes, our charitable neighbor would help out, and she usually sealed our hard-earned quarters in an envelope addressed to the Red Cross. I didn’t protest. We’d had our fun, all the same.

Citrus Maximus

A partial tour through the juicy precursors to lemonade

By Sonja Anderson

a lemonade vendor and a customer pose for a photograph in Egypt
A lemonade vendor in Egypt, c.1870. Chroma Collection / Alamy

The First Squeeze

Humanity’s earliest known lemony drink sprang up around the tenth century, in Egypt. Kashkab was a mix of barley, mint, black pepper and leaf of citron (a tarter predecessor to the modern lemon). When lemons arrived in North Africa, they became central to the drink, thereafter known as qatarmizat: a blend of lemon juice, water and sugar.

Paris, Je T’aime

By the mid-17th century, carbonated lemonade was popular in Europe. In France’s capital, vendors carried vats of it on their backs, from which they filled glasses for passing pedestrians. As lemonade’s popularity rose, these resourceful merchants became so numerous that in 1676, they unionized as the Compagnie de Limonadiers.

Ahead of the Scurvy

With the advent of long-distance ocean voyages came scurvy, a deadly affliction caused by a lack of vitamin C. Eventually, Britain came up with a solution: Beginning in 1795, the British Navy commanded its soldiers to drink lemon juice daily, which prevented the malady. Later, while at war with lemon-supplying Spain, the Brits switched to lime juice and earned the moniker “Limeys.”

The Spirit of Abstinence

In the mid-1800s, the American temperance movement latched on to lemonade as a substitute for booze. Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, one of the movement’s most public advocates, earned the nickname “Lemonade Lucy” after she prohibited all alcohol in the White House—offering visitors fresh lemonade in its place.

In the Pink

Legend has it that pink lemonade—a popular variation often containing strawberry or raspberry juice—originated at U.S. circuses. The 1912 obituary of Henry E. Allott, a Chicagoan who joined the circus as a teenager, records that he invented the drink by accident, when he inadvertently dropped cinnamon candies into a batch of concession lemonade. In a gnarlier vein, some historians say a vendor once served lemonade he’d made using water in which a circus performer had just wrung out her crimson tights.

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