Sometimes being the first means being the first to fall, the first to be forgotten.
And so it was with Paul Stevens Hollis of Fort Worth, who in 1922—a century ago—invented the world’s first powdered soft drink mix.
Yes, before there was Kool-Aid there was Poly Pop.
Poly Pop was born in this 1907-vintage house at 2703 Avenue E across Conner Avenue from Polytechnic High School.
Paul Hollis, born in Georgia on February 18, 1892, was the son of an entrepreneur. His father Marlin, listed in the 1920 census as a manufacturer of medicine, made and sold salves and ointments. Son Paul sold those salves and ointments.
But Paul soon had a sweeter notion. His recipe for success: citric acid, certified color, caffeine, and artificial flavor. Just add sugar and water and stir with entrepreneurial zeal.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram, older brother Chester Hollis recalled Paul’s early research and development: “He had a keg on the front of his car and would carry paper cups inside. He would go to schools and give it [Poly Pop] to the kids to see if they liked it.”
They liked it.
So, Paul Hollis patented his invention and registered the trademark “Poly Pop” in 1922 and began doing business as “Big State Company.”
He soon went into full-scale production, manufacturing Poly Pop in a building on Avenue D behind the family house.
Hollis expanded his business, advertising in the Star-Telegram classified ads for “agents to sell Poly Pop, a good drink.”
Hollis placed this ad in the 1925 Poly High School yearbook.
Star-Telegram ad. Again Hollis was modest in his promotion: “a good drink.”
By the time Poly Pop reached its peak of popularity in the 1930s, Hollis (pictured) employed two hundred women at his plant, the Star-Telegram said. (Photos from UNT Libraries Special Collections.)
Poly Pop was sold in stores in adjacent states.
Poly Pop sponsored a program of music on radio station KFJZ.
Poly Pop sponsored a youth baseball team. Two members of the team—and of the Poly Pop generation—were Ed and J. D. Peacock of the Poly family of athletes and firemen.
This Big State letterhead and a packet of grape Poly Pop were bought online. A penny packet—1/25th of an ounce—of Poly Pop flavored one quart of water. A nickel packet flavored eight quarts.
Some kids didn’t bother to add sugar to the powder. Or even water. They ate the powder straight from the packet.
“You sure puckered up when you licked it,” a Poly resident told the Star-Telegram years later.
And Joe Jopling, a 1943 graduate of Poly High School, recalled: “Without lots of [sugar], Poly Pop was a very bitter powder. I remember how disappointed I was after my first taste of a ripped-open free packet. But it was great after water and sugar were added.”
That powder may have been bitter, but it brought sweet success to Paul Hollis. He made a lot of dollars a penny and a nickel at a time. Hollis saved the money he made from his invention and invested $15,000 in rental property and stocks. He became a millionaire. Then he gave most of his money away. Each Christmas Hollis, who had no children of his own, invited every child under age twelve to come to the Poly Pop factory. He gave each child a bag of gifts and a quarter. When the tenants of one of his rental properties had a baby, Hollis gave them a free month’s rent.
Another Poly High School graduate and another Peacock—Don—recalled: “He was a kind and generous man. I recall going into his place at Christmas, sign a sheet and pick up a box with candy and fruit in it. That was a good present back then in a family of nine kids. He would often catch some of the boys playing around there and line us up and pitch a penny to see who could get to it first. At times he would pitch a dime, and I never lost one of those.”
Joe Jopling suspected that Hollis was generous even with his trash. Jopling recalled: “We used a lot of Poly Pop but never bought it. There were always rejects in the trash back of the [Hollis] house. Looking back, I think Mr. Hollis might have enriched his trash because a lot of the discarded packets looked just fine.”
Hollis also established a fund to maintain Polytechnic Cemetery, where his parents are buried.
Poly Pop was on the market for thirty years, but in 1927 Hollis began to face competition from a new kid on the block—a Kool-Aid Kid. In Hastings, Nebraska, young amateur chemist Edwin Perkins invented a similar powdered drink mix. Perkins called his invention “Kool-Ade” (soon renamed “Kool-Aid”) and began to sell it by mail order and in stores.
Down in Fort Worth, Paul Hollis needed to adapt to the new challenge. But Chester Hollis told the Star-Telegram that brother Paul “had his way of doing things, and that was it. I told him the package was not appealing, that someone would come along with a more attractive packet. He didn’t care. Well, Kool-Aid did, and Poly Pop gradually dwindled down.”
Edwin Perkins’s Kool-Aid packet was certainly more eye-catching than Hollis’s Poly Pop packet. The Kool-Aid packet was printed in color and featured a picture of a glass of Kool-Aid. The letters of the logo “Kool-Aid” were encrusted in ice. Hollis’s Poly Pop packet was printed in black ink in a plain font with no artwork. And Poly Pop’s advertising slogan remained modest: “Good Old Poly Pop.”
The competition from Kool-Aid eventually was too much for Poly Pop, especially after Perkins sold his company to corporate giant General Foods in 1953. That’s the year Hollis gave in and sold his Poly Pop formula to a man from Garland, Texas. The new owner never used the formula.
Another member of the Poly Pop generation was George Hunter Enis, football star at Poly High, TCU, and in the AFL.
In January 1962 Enis recalled Poly Pop.
But by January 1962, of course, Poly Pop was gone. And nine months later, so was its inventor. Paul Stevens Hollis died on October 16 in the little wooden house on Avenue D where he had invented Poly Pop. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.
A Poly High School building now occupies the lot where the Poly Pop factory stood.