It was an extraordinarily hot summer in New York City in 1880. The type of day “a salamander would find no fault with,” an extraordinarily purple but charming piece of prose in the New York Times on July 10th explained. “You might have boiled eggs in the fountains,” the journalist wrote. It was hotter than even way down in New Orleans “where heat is commonly believed to have its home.”
The point is it was pretty hot that day as the guy was saying. Walking among the tired horses and perspiring workers of the city, all in search of shade and hydration, the reporter found one type of recently ascendant entrepreneur plying a busy trade: the lemonade peddlers. That day “the vendors of cheap lemonade squeezed out enough lemon juice to float a ship.”
“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,” he went on. “Before, if a thirsty soul wanted a glass of lemonade, on a hot day, he had to go into some bar room and pay 15 cents for it. Now, at any of these lemonade stands—and scores of them have been established—a customer can have a glass of ice cold lemonade, made before his eyes, for 5 cents.”
A few weeks ago I was walking out of the gym I go to and there were some kids selling lemonade and cookies and all the other types of treats kids sell. They were fundraising for their youth basketball team or helping out the local rec center or some worthwhile cause or other and I said I’m sorry I don’t have any cash on me and they said that’s ok we take Venmo or PayPal or CashApp and I thought I guess we live in the future now. It’s not the future though it’s the same place we’ve always lived with the same lessons about capitalism and competition that lemonade stands have always supposed to instill in children, just with slightly different technological upgrades.
After I left I felt a sort of tug and pull. Isn’t that cute you say when you walk by something like that. They’re learning life lessons you say. They’re engaging in civic responsibility or practicing for a future of charitable giving. You’d have to be a complete grouch to not find that sort of thing heartwarming, children banding together to do some small bit of good, whether it’s to help out those in need, or their own community. It’s innocent and simple and a reminder of many of our own youthful experiences doing the same. Unfortunately I do happen to be a complete grouch though, so the echoes of decades of austerity and predatory capitalism inherent in the lemonade stand were hard to ignore. Isn’t that nice you say. I wish they didn’t have to do it.
That Times story wasn’t the first journalistic mention of lemonade stands in the United States to be clear. That actually came, as best as I can tell, in an 1867 article in the New York Tribune. Amidst a sea of vending carts for hungry workers, "the crowning glory of these retail huckster-stands is the lemonade kept by them in dirty wooden or tin pails.”
There’s a skepticism about vendors like this in a lot of the early accounts, as if there’s something dirty about the transaction and that’s fine because there usually is something dirty about all transactions.
The recipe here was apparently rather crude, consisting of molasses, vinegar and water. “A few decayed and repeatedly squeezed lemon rinds, intended to deceive the keen eye of the observer, float on top of the dirty looking fluid.”
The lemonade in that particular account was a cheaply made inferior product disguised as something else. That’s fitting. While the stories of the iconic lemonade stand, one of the most enduring symbols of wholesome Americana we have, are supposed to be about self reliance, and initiative, and all of the other phony parables about bootstrapping we teach children under the mythology of capitalism, much like everything else in American history, the real lesson is a lot more brutal than that. It’s about beating the competition. It’s about struggling to survive. It’s about winners and losers.
The platonic ideal of the upstart childhood lemon tycoon that lingers with us today comes from a man named Edward Bok, who went on to become a popular magazine editor, and whose biography The Americanization of Edward Bok, published in 1920, went on to win a Pulitzer. A Dutch immigrant in the 1870s, Bok noticed travelers making their way to Coney Island needed to stop and rest. Selling ice water at a penny a glass proved to be a boon, but noticing how much money he was making, other boys moved in on his territory. Bok had the epiphany that if he added a little lemon and sugar to the mix, he could stand out from the crowd and triple his asking price. It wasn’t long before he was victorious. The book doesn’t say what happened to the other boys, the ones he fended off. They went wherever it is the losers go, the ones whose stories we don’t read about a century later.
I’m trying to remember a lemonade stand of my own I started where I grew up in coastal Massachusetts, where the pilgrims, for whom a piece of citrus would have been as valuable as gold, settled and invented America as we know it by destroying everyone who got in their way. It would’ve been along the quiet side street off of a busy road I grew up on. It would’ve cost 25 cents a glass instead of the 5 cents it costs in the famous lemonade stand cartoons because this was the 1980s and making money was particularly fashionable at the time. No one would have come and I would have given up pretty easily because salesmanship and business sense aren’t things that I’ve ever had any interest in or affinity for which probably explains how I ended up as a writer.
Maybe I never even had one now that I think of it. Maybe it’s just a borrowed piece of someone else’s childhood, because starting a lemonade stand is just one of those things American kids are supposed to have done. Maybe I’ve just seen so many depictions of it in popular culture throughout my entire life–from Norman Rockwel, to Our Gang and all the way up to Family Guy and The Simpsons. In the latter in one episode Bart and Lisa learn some important lessons about running a business when they start one, from “priming the pump” of their sales to make their product appear more popular than it is, to churning out cheap swill–baby Maggie dumps sugar packets into a kiddie pool and stirs with her feet–to the need sometimes to bribe the authorities, who promptly arrive demanding to see their paperwork.
Consider one of the other more commonly retold stories about the history of lemonade stands: the one about a young girl in Chicago in the 1940s who, whoops, inadvertently spread an outbreak of polio by not washing her glasses. For all their depictions as a harmless youthful lark, lemonade stands have come under a surprising amount of official adult scrutiny over the decades, which is another good lesson for young businessmen in the making, that the enemy of capitalism is government oversight and regulation, i.e., looking out for people.
As of last year lemonade stands were only explicitly legal in fourteen states, which sounds weird, because recreational weed is now legal in eleven. I just saw a tweet from Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa who shared a story about a law moving through the legislature there that would make lemonade stands legal. “Great News! It should go without saying that kids should be able to run a lemonade stand without getting the police involved,” she wrote. In 2019, after lemonade stands were finally legalized in Colorado and Texas, the lemonade company Country Time initiated an effort to repeal the remaining laws against them, naturally for the benefit of the children and for no other monetary or promotional concerns. “Whether you live in a red state or blue state, every state can be a yellow state,” their marketing and lobbying effort explained. Drown the country in the yellow stuff.
I just stumbled across another cartoon about a lemonade stand. It was part of a completely cursed effort on behalf of billionaire Warren Buffet, the fourth richest person in the world, to indoctrinate children into business. Buffet likes to tell lionizing stories about his own self-starting childhood selling gum to kids in his neighborhood in Omaha Nebraska, then Coca-Cola, then lemonade. The epiphany he had is when he realized that he needed to set up his operation in front of his friend’s home on a busier street than his own. Next thing you know one man controls more wealth than the gross domestic product of Iceland, Uganda, and Latvia combined! That’s the lesson of the lemonade stand. No matter where you start, you too can one day have enough money for a thousand lifetimes. You probably won’t but maybe.
In the cartoon, the Secret Millionaires Club, with a treacly jingle from the guy who wrote the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers theme, Buffet is the mentor of a plucky group of multicultural kids, and they all gather together to work out efficient solutions to business problems. In one episode, the gang’s friend Britney is trying to raise $102 so she can go on a class trip. The problem is, no one is buying her lemonade. Is the lemonade an inferior product, they ask. Nope. Is there too much competition? Nope, she’s got a monopoly on the whole block. Is her price too much? Nope, it’s “icey but not pricey” the gang says. The key, says the cartoonish Buffet, already himself a perverse cartoon of a billionaire in real life, is this: Location. “It’s better to sell on a main street than on a side street.”
The lesson of Buffet’s cute little cartoon is no different than the message in an advertisement for the Electric Power and Light Company in Life Magazine from 1947 I just came across. In it a ruddy cheeked young lad poses probably by his box “leminade” stand.
“Captain of industry” it reads in bold. “Butch wants a bicycle! Lots of lawns and lemonade and babysitting lie between Butch and that bike, but we're betting on the boy. He has energy, vision, and our national habit of working hard for what he wants.”
The thing about lemonade stands is that most of them fail. Most businesses fail in general of course, but for a lot of children, starting one is an early lesson in disappointment. That life can be cruel.
Here’s another story from early 2020. A five year old girl in San Diego named Katelynn got sad because some of her friends couldn’t afford a school program, so she decided to sell cookies and cocoa and so on to raise money to help. When she was done she used the money to pay off the lunch debt of 123 students in the district.
75% of school districts around the U.S. report outstanding lunch debt by the way. In a number of high profile cases this past year students have been prevented from attending the prom or class field trips and so on because they don’t have enough money to pay for a carton of milk and a hamburger. They don’t have enough money to survive.
“Katelynn’s mom, Karina Hardee, said the girl started asking questions, wondering why things like this happen,” NBC San Diego reported and that’s a very good question indeed and if you ever find out Katelynn please let us know.
“I don't want people to be hungry,” Katelynn said.
In Ohio the news ran a story on children raising money to cancel student debt of their own last year. Around the same time two sisters in North Carolina raised $41,000 to cover their district’s debt.
I just saw a GoFundMe started by a seven year old boy named Cayden asking people to help him with his goal of selling lemonade to raise money for kids with cancer. Peruse your Facebook events and you’ll find dozens of similar efforts like this one in Texas last year hoping to sell $400 worth of lemonade for children with cancer. The local TV news in Arkansas featured two little girls who raised $3,000 for breast cancer last year because one of their mothers is suffering from it.
Whenever you see pieces like those in the news they’re covered as a feel good inspirational stories. Look at the pluck of these young kids doing their part they say. What a bunch of good kids the news guy says, and then we share them ourselves on social media because it makes us feel good. It really shouldn’t.
“He's American business in miniature,” the rest of that ad from the 1940s about Butch the young businessman reads. “There are many names for Butch's philosophy. You can call it Free Enterprise, Opportunity, Democracy, or Capitalism if you want. But whatever the name, America owes it much. For our most valuable natural resources lies in the ambition and initiative of Americans like Butch.”
The $10 lemonade I purchased from those kids at the pool was… fine by the way. Little too sugary for me. When I got home I saw a picture on Twitter of a bunch of kids selling toilet paper at a wooden stand on the sidewalk in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. “When life gives you lemons, sell toilet paper,” it said. The three young boys smiling real big in their shorts have a hand-printed sign. “Don’t get left behind,” it reads. “$2 a roll.” Then there’s a smiling poop emoji. It’s a picture of the American dream.