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The Hottest Drink of the 1893 World's Fair Was an Artificial Orange 'Cider'

"You're drinking something that some guy just cobbled together out of Lake Michigan water and food dye.”

Sweet, sour, and nonalcoholic, orange cider was the hottest drink of the World’s Fair. Introduced by a Floridian drink manufacturer, the beverage grew wildly popular throughout the six months of the event.

World fairs and expositions have long been a way for nations, states, institutions, and businesses to show off their best sides to large audiences. Since people love novel foods and drinks, these events also popularized or inspired many foods we still eat today. Juicy Fruit gum got its start at the 1893 fair, as did the Chicago specialty Vienna beef. The St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 was where the ice cream cone became mainstream, and while the 1964 World’s Fair in New York was something of a disaster, it also kicked off a vogue for Belgian waffles.

But orange cider, the runaway success of 1893, has not stayed in the culinary lexicon. According to Marissa Croft, a research and insights analyst at the Chicago History Museum, there’s a very good reason why. “Probably all the knock-offs made a pretty big ding to its reputation,” she says.

Orange cider, explains Croft, existed prior to the fair, but was sometimes made as an alcoholic drink, accounting for the “cider” in the name. With the American temperance movement well underway, many stands at the fair opted to sell soft drinks to the public. While lemonade and other citrus-flavored treats were available to many Americans, the appeal of the cider, Croft believes, was its association with Florida and other warm regions.

A majority of the U.S. states (plus one territory) had their own building at the fair. Florida’s was particularly magnificent. “The Floridian pavilion was really nice. It was lush, and they had this huge orange tower in the center,” says Croft. Florida’s pavilion sold orange cider, which they maintained had real oranges in it. Other businesses and exhibits soon followed suit, making orange cider into a genuine craze.

With 27 million total fair attendees, that meant a lot of people sampled orange cider. Businesses smelled an opportunity to cash in, and soon, much of the cider sold at the fair contained no orange at all. “You’re promised orange cider, which sounds pretty straightforward, like a sugary fruity drink. But then you’re drinking something that some guy just cobbled together out of Lake Michigan water and food dye,” says Croft.

In a recent video, Croft and YouTuber Kaz Rowe whipped up one recipe for orange cider from an 1899 book, which contained simple syrup, orange essence, citric acid, and food coloring. The recipe, which Croft included in a blog post on the Chicago History Museum website, is a sweet, citrusy drink. It’s less complex than actual orange juice, but it’s pretty tasty and incredibly simple to make. It’s easy to understand why drink-makers would prefer to sell this version of “orange cider,” instead of messing around with actual oranges.