Few things whip up an appetite quite like the playground of cotton candy, popcorn, fried food and sweet drinks that accompanies a circus. Pink lemonade in particular has long been associated with the circus, which does not simply claim to enjoy the beverage, but to have invented it: and in a business that relies so heavily on oral tradition (in industry parlance, “cutting up jackpots”), there are two tales about how the drink was therein first created.
The first comes from Henry E. Allott, whose New York Times obituary (1912) bills him as the “Inventor of Pink Lemonade,” and attributes his creation to a stroke of luck: one day, mixing a batch of plain yellow lemonade, Allott claimed to have knocked a pile of red cinnamon candy into the tub by mistake. “The resulting rose-tinted mixture sold so surprisingly well,” relates the Times, “that he continued to dispense his chance discovery.”
George Conklin begged to differ. A career showman and lion tamer, Conklin included the creation myth of pink lemonade in his 1921 memoir The Ways of the Circus, crediting his brother Pete with an equally happy accident on the Mabie circus. Conklin stated that one day in 1857, with concession sales going swimmingly, Pete found that he was out of water and there were no nearby natural sources from which he could refill his beverage stock. Racing frantically through the show lot, Pete found the bareback rider Fannie Jamieson in the middle of laundry day, wringing out a pair of her pink tights. “Without giving any explanation or stopping to answer her questions,” Conklin explained, “Pete grabbed the tub of pink water and ran.” Sales of what Pete billed as strawberry lemonade went gangbusters, and “from then on no first-class circus was without pink lemonade.”
And, look… everyone likes lemonade. Lemonade is refreshing and tart and has the whiff of summer indulgence to it. Not everything that was sold as lemonade in the nineteenth century was what you and I and the Federal Trade Commission would regard as lemonade, though: it was common practice, inside the circus and beyond, to serve a form of lemonade that had more citrus in name than composition.
Some vendors truly did make a point of ensuring the purity of their lemon beverages. Others simply took anything that would make a vaguely tart-sweet combo and floated a lemon slice on top: one 1867 vendor, selling to incoming immigrants to the United States, was said to have offered a dingy mix of molasses, vinegar and water with a few sad lemon rinds floating on top. The standard circus recipe, relayed by Conklin, long involved water, tartaric acid (a fruit-based acidulant compound that lends a sour flavor, and from which cream of tartar is derived), a pinch of red aniline dye (a coal tar derivative now largely used to tint wood stain), and slices of re-usable “floater” lemons for appearance’s sake. (And before you gasp in horror, a modern combination of high fructose corn syrup, petroleum-based red #40 and “natural flavors” may not be too far off.)
That said, as long as the drinks were cold and the show was good, no one much needed to pretend that pink lemonade came from anything organic: one writer in 1872 concluded that only “a possible purchaser with hereditary proclivities to insanity may be deluded into the idea that strawberries enter into the composition of the potable.”
Betsy Golden Kellem is a scholar of the unusual. A historian and media attorney, she has written for The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Atlas Obscura, The Washington Post and Slate, and serves on the board of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She blogs at Drinks With Dead People, and is at work on a book about remarkable performing women.