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Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: Jell-O Time
Professor Hanington’s Speaking of Science

Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: Jell-O Time

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The word “dessert” originates from the French word desservir, meaning “to clear the table.” I make it a tradition of always including one at dinner’s finish. If I am on the road and traveling for AHV a sliver of cheesecake and a cup of coffee do well to round out a tiresome day. But here in Elko, on the other hand, I usually never order dessert because I can easily go home and have a bowl of spumoni or cherry vanilla ice cream.

Most people who know me will attest that I buy the goodies in our house. Mira’s version of dessert centers around plain dry salty crackers — ugh. A variation on this ritual occurs when I eat lunch at King Buffet and I save room for Jell-O. What an interesting history it has.

Its main component is gelatin, a tasteless protein made from boiled cow bones and hooves and supposedly a favorite after dinner treat of wealthy pre-Victorian families. To extract the gelatin, servants would slave over a hot boiling cauldron all day dissolving the collagen and sinews, letting them settle to solidify and afterwards molding it into various shapes. It is said that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed gelatin desserts at his Monticello home and you can find today an online a recipe for his wine jelly, a rare confection that he invented during his tenure as third president of our republic.

Another gelatin dabbler was the self-taught engineer, beloved philanthropist and presidential candidate Peter Cooper, who besides inventing the locomotive “Tom Thumb,” obtained the very first American patent (US Patent 4084) for the manufacture of gelatin in 1845. Here he devised a way to make gelatin more universal to ordinary households by making large sheets of it and grinding them into a powder. His “Portable Gelatin” required only the addition of hot water to turn it into a happy dessert. He subsequently established various other patents for its manufacture and promoted strict cleanliness standards for its production. Unfortunately, not much came of this investment so he went on to bigger things such as founding Cooper Union in New York City, the nation’s first free institution of higher learning and famous as the venue for Abraham Lincoln’s celebrated anti-slavery speech on Feb. 27, 1860.

It took more than 50 years for the next step to occur. On May 28, 1897, Jell-O was officially introduced by Pearl B. Wait, a carpenter and cough medicine manufacturer from the upstate New York town of LeRoy, a small burg close to Rochester. He found a fix for the bland taste of gelatin by combining it with something he knew a fair bit about- sugary syrups. By using strawberry, raspberry, lemon, and orange for flavoring the ordinary gelatin now actually tasted good! In fact this was such an improvement his wife, May, christened the new product Jell-O.

Although the new business had no competition, not enough people wanted to try the novel snack. After working it for two years and sensing a dog, Wait sold the business lock stock, barrel and name to Orator Woodward, a down-the-block neighbor, for $450 (almost $13,000 today). History books show that this was a good match because Woodward had founded the Genesee Pure Food Company two years earlier and was already selling a popular health drink named Grain-O when he bought Jell-O.

With Woodward’s creative sales and sampling strategies, Jell-O began to catch on. Woodward dressed his salesmen in fancy suits and had them offer free samples to homemakers. They employed every trick in the book to get grocers to stock their shelves with boxes of Jell-O. In 1902, he launched his first advertising campaign in Ladies’ Home Journal and sales eventually reached $250,000. The ad, costing $336, featured “smiling, fashionably coifed women in white aprons proclaiming Jell-O gelatin ‘America’s Favorite Dessert’.”

Due to aggressive marketing, Jell-O became one of the most well-known brands in American history. By 1924 the Genesee Pure Foods Company became quite simply the Jell-O Company. That same year, the company hired the soon-to-be-famous Norman Rockwell to draw colorful illustrations depicting the joys of Jell-O. His illustration of a young girl serving a Jell-O to her doll at tea time is a classic.

In the 1930s with radio rising in prominence, Jell-O became one of the first companies to advertise on the airwaves. Many an old Jack Benny show had the cast singing “J-E-L-L- ooooooooo.” It had six flavors now, adding lime and cherry. Through WWII sales were strong and continued even into the 60s.

In 1964, the plant in LeRoy closed when the conglomerate General Foods (now Kraft Foods) took over production. By the 1970s sales started to decline so they hired the 37-year-old comedian Bill Cosby to be their spokesperson. It worked and Cosby brought Jell-O to new heights. It must have worked so well that in 2001 the Utah state legislation declared that “Jell-O brand gelatin be recognized as the favorite snack of Utah.”

Gary Hanington is a professor of physical science at Great Basin College and Chief Scientist at AHV. If you have a scientific topic request he can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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