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Pink Lemonade was Invented by Old-Time Circus Clowns

Steve Palace

It’s a popular Summer refreshment but also an oddity. Pink lemonade looks like dentist’s mouthwash, yet the sweet and tinted taste been enjoyed for over a hundred years. Just where did this rosiest of drinks come from and what is the significance of its coloring…?

Different accounts exist, though they appear to revolve around one institution… the circus. Travelling circuses were hitting the road Stateside in the 19th century, where it’s reported the first mention of the pinkest of drinks was made. The Wheeling Register of West Virginia published the initial details in 1879.

Pink lemonade
Pink lemonade

Two particular showbusiness players are identified in the creation of pink lemonade. Both happened upon the stuff by accident. The first was teenager Henry E. Allott, who according to a 2017 piece in Food & Wine “was in charge of both the candy and lemonade concessions for a circus” in 1872. “Either by his own clumsiness or someone else’s, he dropped a whole container of red cinnamon candies into a vat of freshly-made lemonade.” As a result, the drink was “stained reddish-pink—a similar color to clown pants.”

Circus clowns
Circus advertisement depicting a clown act, 1900

The story is appreciated more perhaps for its entertainment value than its accuracy, with reports of red fruit and lemonade combos predating Allott’s ‘discovery’. Allott went on to become a well-known figure whose 1912 obituaries were written in the national press. Food & Wine describe him as “a famed circus promoter and, later, a feared gambler nicknamed ‘Bunk Allen.’”

vintage circus poster
Vintage circus poster

However wild that sounds, it’s nothing compared to Pete Conklin’s tale. Brother of lion tamer George Conklin, he was supposedly responsible for pink lemonade. Though he wouldn’t have been keen to share his recipe – the health and safety risk being off the scale. Regulations were certainly more lax back then, but Conklin’s efforts are fruity even by those standards.

Circus clown
Circus clown in 1907

In 1857, when Allott was getting ready to be born, Conklin plied his trade as a lemonade vendor. Pink lemonade is associated with colorful clowns and Pete was actually an ex-clown. Having left the circus over a pay dispute, he ran his own concessions operation within spitting distance of the Big Top.

One day he encountered a snag. Smithsonian Magazine recounted that he “ran out of water and thinking on the fly, grabbed a tub of dirty water in which a performer had just finished wringing out her pink-colored tights…He marketed the drink as his new ‘strawberry lemonade,’ and a star was born.” It’s hoped this origin story is more a tall tale than a definitive telling.

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As for regular lemonade, that has a nobler history. Food & Wine writes, “Persian poet Nasir-I-Khusraw wrote about daily life in 11th century Egypt and referenced ‘qatarmizat’ which was freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with sugar cane… the Genghis Khan-led Mongols are thought to have enjoyed an alcoholic version”.

Moving away from the barbarism of warrior hordes, another group which lent a hand to the expansion of lemonade was the comparably more civilized Temperance Movement of the 1870s. They saw it as a fine alternative refreshment to anything intoxicating.

Ironically the modern pink lemonade doesn’t go beyond its own description. It may be pink, but in every other sense it’s plain – or rather tangy – old lemons. Smithsonian mentions “the bulk of global-brand pink lemonade is pink in color alone, a tint derived from concentrated grape juice or extract.”

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It seems consumer psychology is at play in using pink to finish the drink. The article speaks to an expert and concludes the color is “calming and youthful”. So ultimately the driving force behind pink lemonade sales is a mental rather than physical one. Having said that, there are worse ways of quenching your thirst. Just ask Pete Conklin…!