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Cooking Up History: Lemonade

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When I was a kid, summertime meant a pitcher of lemonade (from concentrate) was always on hand–along with popsicles and box fans, it was among our means of staying cool in a house without air conditioning. I’ve always loved a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day, and as I mixed a pitcher for my daughters this summer, I wondered about its history and what I might discover about it in the Library’s collections.

Iced Lemonade, Cool & Refreshing, New York : Published by Currier & Ives, c1879. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Images of vendors in Egypt, TurkeyAustria, Greece, Israel, and Iraq from the Library’s collections show the international popularity of lemonade. The journal Nature recently published a study tracing the roots of all citrus fruits to the foothills of the Himalayas, and lemons are thought to have been first cultivated in what is now northwestern India. Citrus fruits including lemons were considered status symbols in the ancient Mediterranean, according to recent scholarship from Tel Aviv University, and citrus drinks have a long history, dating to Egypt in the early centuries of the common era. Lemonade is recorded in France by the 1600s and in England by the 1800s; the British Navy used lemons beginning in 1795 to prevent scurvy (please note, these references point to sources outside of the Library).

Lemonade and water peddlers in Constantinople, circa 1920. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the late 1800s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union promoted lemonade in the United States as an alternative to alcohol. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877 – 1881) banned alcohol in the White House, and his wife, Lucy Hayes, served nonalcoholic beverages including drinks using lemons as hostess. As a result, she became known by later generations as “Lemonade Lucy.” “Keeping the House Cool” an article from the Ladies Home Journal that is preserved in a scrapbook by Civil War nurse and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, responded to lemonade’s growing popularity in the period: “A word should, perhaps, be said as to the unwholesomeness of the extremely cold water, tea, lemonade, and other liquids, which are so extensively used throughout the United States. These cold drinks reduce the temperature of the stomach, thereby checking digestion, and for this reason should be avoided during or immediately after meals.” You can view more of Barton’s papers, held at the Library, and help to transcribe them here.

Lemonade stand at the Zapata County Fair in Zapata, Texas. Photographer Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division

Lemonade represents far more than a pleasant summertime childhood memory. The lemonade stand is for some an early introduction to economics, the forces of supply and demand, and the importance of a prime location, as any kid who has set up shop on a low-traffic corner knows well. The phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” with its lesson that with perseverance, challenging times can be turned into something sweet, neatly encapsulates ideas of self-reliance and optimism that have permeated American culture for generations.

California, Arizona, and Florida are this country’s largest producers of lemons. Photographs from the Library’s collections show fruits being sorted, graded, packed and loaded in California in the 1920s. If these photos give the impression that working in the lemon industry was a leisurely job, listening to the American Folklife Center’s 1941 recording of picker Augustus Martinez will make the challenges clear. As Martinez explains, “You go on top of your ladder…and start picking from the top, fill up your sack about one third, then get down to the middle part and then fill it up a little more, then down at the bottom lean down on your knees, lean the sack on the ground. It’s a little heavy because it weighs about forty five or fifty pounds…it gets to be pretty heavy nine hours….Around where I used to pick, I used to get 27.5 cents an hour for picking lemons or 3 cents per box…” That would be approximately $5 per hour or 55 cents per box in today’s money, or $45 for a nine-hour day of lemon-picking.

Washington, D.C. Pouring lemonade at a birthday party on Seaton Road, 1942. Photographer Gordon Parks. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Chronicling America, the Library’s archive of American newspapers, includes many references to lemonade, including this article from the Arizona Republican in 1910. It suggests a number of tasty alternatives to the standard lemonade including a lemonade-iced tea mixture with mint, strawberry lemonade, and this pineapple lemonade recipe, easy enough to make (carefully) with kids:

… A recipe for pineapple lemonade calls for a pint of boiling water, a quart of ice water, half a pint of sugar, a can of preserved pineapple and the juice of three lemons. Boil the sugar in the hot water for ten minutes then add the pineapple and lemon, juice. Cool, strain and add the ice water.

Or, you might explore this 1891 Book of Ices, Ice Beverages, Ice-Creams and Ices. Its recipes include Lemon-Water Ice and Iced Lemonade, made in part by “rub[bing] ripe lemons with a handful of granulated sugar or lump sugar to extract the essential aromatic oil in the rind” before slicing and adding them to cold or boiling water. Or if ice cream is more to your taste, try this lemon ice cream recipe.

Whatever form of lemonade you choose, I hope you enjoy it, and feel inspired to explore the Library’s collections for more on this or any topic you love!

Comments (2)

  1. The Currier and Ives advertisement looks professional. How well did it contribute to the sales of the product in 1879? I have never studied the artwork style during my education but it appears that the contributor may have been an investor in some type of silver for cars or household products. Do you have any information about his or her provenance?

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