You’ve heard of it, felt its jiggly consistency, salivated over its fruity smell, welcomed it after being sick, slurped it from a shot glass — even wallowed in a wrestling ring filled with it. Over its history it has been lauded by Elizabeth King, a four-year-old poster girl, promoted by Jack Benny, demoted by Bill Cosby, dietized, instantized, and iconized as “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” It’s my honor, and privilege, to introduce that life-of-the-party, always intriguing, gem of a foodstuff that “there’s always room for” Jell-O.
Jell-O is synonymous with gelatin or is it the other way around? Most of us can relate to Jell-O, often considered a dessert, sometimes a salad, in its ready-to-eat or powder form, available in many different colors and fruit flavors. According to whatscookingamerica.net, “The word ‘gelatine’ comes originally from the Latin word ‘gelatus’ and means ‘jellied, froze.’ Gelatine was first used in Egyptian times….” Over the years the use of gelatin was considered a sign of wealth because it took hours to prepare, clarify, and turn into aspics, and only those who had appropriate kitchen staff and supplies to produce it could afford it.
Frenchman Denis Papin’s experiments in 1682 refer to boiling glutinous material from animal bones. (Haunted by my own visions of yore, I keep envisioning jars of pickled pigs’ feet, those fleshy looking hunks suspended in clear gook that were regarded as a delicacy by my former relatives!) This tasteless, odorless, colorless substance, when combined with liquid, was pure protein (collagen) and the predecessor to the infamous Jell-O.
The French were the first to use gelatin in cooking. Rumor has it that during the Napoleonic War the French used gelatin as a source of protein during the English blockade. A historic timeline provided by whatscookingamerica.net indicates that unflavored and dried gelatin became available in 1842: “The same year, the J and G Company [of Edinburgh, Scotland] began exporting its Cox’s Gelatin to the United States.”
Inventor Peter Cooper in 1845 secured a patent (US Patent 4084) for a gelatin powder. Cooper was more interested in the gluelike aspects of the stuff, not its dessert properties and ended up selling the patent to Pearl Wait, a carpenter and cough syrup maker in LeRoy, New York, who became known for his work developing a locomotive steam engine. Wait was destined to play a role in the creation of America’s signature dessert.
In the meantime, in 1874, our neighbor across the ocean, the Brit’s Sir William Pickles Hartley, began the manufacture of jelly which blossomed into marmalade’s and jams.
Rock Gelatin Company of Boston patented its phosphates gelatin in 1889 and in 1894 Charles Knox developed the world’s first pre-granulated gelatin. He found a way to package dried sheets of gelatin that, when liquid was added to, could be used to make aspics, molds and desserts. In 1896 Mrs. Rose Knox, Charles’ wife and businesswoman, published “Dainty Desserts”, a book of recipes using Knox gelatin. Yum.
So back to Pearl Wait and his wife, May…they started dabbling with fruits, flavoring the gelatin and trying, rather unsuccessfully, to market the product which May named Jell-O. In 1899, Wait sold the trademark to fellow LeRoy, New Yorker orator Frank Woodward for $450!
According to the official Jell-O Museum website (which, by the way is a place for finding unusual gifts like a “Watch it Wiggle, See it Jiggle” apron), Woodward had experience in manufacturing and selling. He was involved with making medicines, composition balls used for target shooting, and a product that killed lice on hens when hatching! The process of making and marketing Jell-O was slow, but, fortunately, other products named “Grain-O” and “Nico” helped bring in additional revenue. Finally, Jell-O advertising, under the direction of William E. Humbelbaugh and Frank LaBounty, took off. Samples and recipes were distributed in 1904. A 3-inch ad, costing $336 in Ladies Home Journal, hit the fan and “bestseller” recipes rolled off the presses. Ads and recipe booklets, which sometimes numbered 15 million in distribution, helped solidify the product. Noted artists such as Rose O’Neill, Maxfield Parrish, Coles Phillips, Norman Rockwell, Linn Ball, and Angus MacDonald made Jell-O a household word with their colored illustrations.
In 1904, Elizabeth King, daughter of Franklin King, an artist working for Dauchy Company, Jell-O’s advertising agency, became the poster child for the product. Blond little Elizabeth was featured displaying a box of Jell-O in one hand and a tea kettle in the other with the tagline reading: “You can’t be a kid without it.”
In 1923, Orator Frank Woodward’s Genesee Pure Food Company was renamed Jell-O Company. Two years later the company merged with Postum Cereal, Inc., eventually becoming General Foods Corporation. Today Jell-O is owned and manufactured by Kraft/General Foods.
Original Jell-O flavors were strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon. Lime flavor was introduced in the 1930s right around the time Jack Benny and the famous jingle, “J-E-L-L-O” were becoming synonymous with the famous dessert known for being “Delicate, Delightful, and Dainty.”
Pudding came and went. Around 1936, chocolate pudding was added to the Jell-O lineup. It was made with milk and its popularity lead to the addition of vanilla, coconut, pistachio, butterscotch, egg custard, flan, rice pudding and tapioca. Sweet! It remains the rage today. Why who wants to make it from scratch when all you have to do is open a box?
The Southern Coca-Cola Salad was introduced around 1942. The recipe replaced the water in Jell-O with Coca-Cola. This led to the introduction of a cola-flavored gelatin, which was not very successful. And it’s funny …if you thought Jell-O shots were something more contemporary, guess again. In the 1950s, “The Jell-O shot which mixes in alcohol (vodka or rum) for up to half the liquid portion of the Jell-O recipe is claimed to be invented by Tom Lehrer, an American singer/songwriter, as a way to get around the alcohol restrictions at the Army base he was stationed at,” reports whatscookingamerica.net.
The 1960s introduced interesting Jell-O flavors such as celery, Italian vegetable and seasoned tomato. Recipes called for cabbage, celery, green peppers and even cooked pasta to be combined with Jell-O. It’s no wonder that these were discontinued. It was during this decade that the infamous, “There’s always room for Jell-O” campaign was born. Promoting the dessert as “light” was the berries!
An all-time favorite referred to as “Jell-O 1, 2, 3” was born in 1969. Having a neat consistency and pretty, too, Jell-O when prepared as directed, separated into a clear bottom, chiffon middle and creamy top. Why it was amazing! As was the infamous Kraft Kitchen recipe for Poke Cake. Remember that one where you use a toothpick to put holes in the cake and pour liquid Jell-O over it? Frost it with whipped topping and, wha-lah, it’s so pretty when cut!
Not standing still, Jell-O continued to evolve. Jigglers, those kind of stiffer, handheld gummy bear type creations, became a thing; a sugar-free NutraSweet version was created (stats say that 40% of Jell-O sold is sugar-free); ready to eat, no mess Jell-O snacks became the rage; and flavors fluctuated!
Back in the day, personalities such as Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball and Roy Rogers helped pitch the dessert’s “deep, dark, delicious flavors,” actually referred to back then as “imitation black cherry, imitation grape, and imitation black raspberry.” And they weren’t the only ones! Animated giants such as Alvin and the Chipmunks and Alice in Wonderland, complete with the Cheshire Cat, made the black and white television Jell-O commercials truly classics!
Eclectic tastes like berry blue flavor became popular and remain so. Some came and went and came again like peach and apricot. In 1997, in celebration of its 100th birthday Jell-O celebrated with a new sparkling white grape flavor and slogan, “Jell-O always breaks the mold.”
Did you know that Jell-O has been designated the official Utah state snack food? And here’s another tidbit to smack on… the 2002 Winter Olympic commemorative pin featured an image of a big bowl of green Jell-O! Selling out quickly, the collectible is hard to find!
Whatscookingamerica.net shares these spoonfuls of wisdom: In the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz” movie, the horse that changed colors was actually six horses sponged down with Jell-O; in the early 1900s, Ellis Island immigrants were offered a bowl of Jell-O as “Welcome to America” gift!; in 1993, technicians at St. Jerome Hospital, Batavia, New York, tested a bowl of lime Jell-O with an EEG machine and confirmed the earlier testing by Dr. Adrian Upton that a bowl of wiggly Jell-O has brain waves identical to those of adult men and women; and gelatin is used by synchronized swimmers to hold their hair in place during their routines as it will not dissolve in the cold water of the pool. It is frequently referred to as “knoxing,” a reference to Knox brand gelatin.
Wow, Jell-O really is amazing! With its long history and evolution, the future of Jell-O is unimaginable. Space? Plant-based? Solar-powered? Nothing can stop it now. Not even the words of the late comedian John Candy:
“Whoever said nothing is impossible obviously hasn’t tried nailing Jell-O to a tree.”
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