How Pink Lemonade Got Its Color

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Nothing quenches your thirst quite like a tall, icy glass of lemonade on a hot day. And somehow it feels even more delicious and treatlike when that lemonade is pink. It’s not that pink lemonade tastes different — at least, not usually. Still, something about its gently blushing, sky-at-sunrise hue makes every sip just a bit more special.

But did you ever pause to wonder how pink lemonade came to be? After all, lemon juice — even the juice from pink lemons, which do exist — is not pink.

The history-minded people at Smithsonian magazine have recently recounted the tale of pink lemonade’s origins. Or should we say “tales”? Because there are two different versions of how pink lemonade originally got its color — and they both involve the circus.

A brief timeline, with dates plucked from the Smithsonian article:

17th century: Traditional lemonade (lemon juice, sugar, water) recipes begin to appear in the United States. (Smithsonian links them to the arrival of European immigrants.)

19th century: Chilled drinks become increasingly popular in the United States, thanks to the growth of the ice trade. Traveling circuses also take off, with people flocking from near and far to gape at death-defying feats and unusual people. (Sword swallowers! Fire breathers! Aerialists!)

1857: According to a 1921 book by Harvey W. Root, The Ways of the Circus: Being the Memories and Adventures of George Conklin Tamer of Lions, Pete Conklin, brother of the book’s subject, invented pink lemonade when he ran out of water while selling lemonade at the circus. “Thinking on the fly, [Pete] grabbed a tub of dirty water in which a performer had just finished wringing out her pink-colored tights,” Smithsonian writer Laura Kiniry recounts, crediting author Josh Chetwynd. “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.’” (Origin theory No. 1: ew!)

1879: An article appears in the West Virginia Wheeling Register that underscores pink lemonade’s connection to the circus.

1892: E.E. Kellogg’s classic Science in the Kitchen includes a pink lemonade recipe tinted with “a half a cup of fresh or canned strawberry, red raspberry, currant or cranberry juice.”

1912: A New York Times obituary for Henry E. Allott, a Chicago man who, as a teenager, ran away to join the circus, credits him with inventing pink lemonade. According to this story, Allot accidentally dropped some red cinnamon candies into a big batch of regular lemonade, turning the beverage pink. Presumably not wanting to waste it, he sold the pink drink to thirsty circusgoers. (Origin theory No. 2 is less gross, but, alas, Chetwynd also finds it less credible.)

Today: We enjoy pink lemonade, whether or not we’re watching strongmen do their thing or people fly through the air with the greatest of ease at the circus. Our blushing beverages may come by their color naturally (courtesy of added fruit juice or extract, quite often) or artificially — although hopefully not from some lady’s dirty pink tights.

If you’re still in the mood for pink lemonade, here’s Ina Garten’s delicious, refreshing recipe, which gets its pink hue from grenadine (and maraschino cherries).

Photo courtesy of iStock