story and photos by James P. Hughes
In the past 120 years, who hasn’t savored a bowl of that jiggly treat with a dollop of whipped cream, or molded it into a chilled salad enhanced with fresh fruit?
That ever-popular dessert, a simple mixture of gelatin, sugar, and flavoring was conceived and trademarked as “Jell-O” in LeRoy, New York in 1897. So embedded has the tasty dish become in America and around the globe that the generic term “jello” is commonly used to reference virtually any gelatin dessert, regardless of the brand name on the package. (Gelatin, or “gelatin,” is a “translucent, colorless, flavorless food derived from the collagen in various animal parts … and…” Well, enough of that; you get the idea.)
Gelatin’s use in dessert-making goes back many centuries and involved long, painstaking processes before reaching the table as acceptable fare. It was generally considered a delicacy available only to wealthy families.
History changed in a home on a quiet LeRoy street in 1897. Pearle B. Wait, a local carpenter, dabbled in the business of creating patent medicines – a cough remedy and laxative tea among them. Experimenting with powdered gelatin, he stumbled upon a fruit flavored dessert that his wife May dubbed “Jell-O.”
“On that day,” explains LeRoy historian Lynne Belluscio, “an elitist food became democratized.”
Wait attempted to market his newfound product, but lacking capital and advertising skills, he had little luck. In 1899, Wait sold his formula and trademark for $450 to fellow LeRoy resident Orator F. Woodward, an established and ingenious businessman with the necessary qualities of shrewdness, imagination, and ambition to make the Jell-O brand a success.
To introduce the relatively unknown product, one early Woodward marketing ploy involved sending promotional wagons throughout the Northeast and Midwest to drop off free recipe books on the porches of homes. Of course, every recipe coincidentally involved the use of Jell-O! Next, the salesmen delivered advertising posters to local storeowners, convincing them to buy and stock the product with some sage advice – “Be prepared, there will soon be a demand for Jell-O.” The strategy worked.
With slick promotion, advertising acumen, and hard work, Woodward eventually turned Jell-O and his Genesee Pure Food Company into household names. For decades, the firm gained notoriety and went through several sales and mergers. Jell-O proudly continued production in its hometown until 1964; it is presently manufactured by
By staying in tune with the times as the years rolled by, Jell-O underwent numerous production and marketing innovations, always with an eye to public appeal. Advertising artwork gave way to photography, and periodically, new slogans and jingles emerged.
Fortunately for fans of the wiggly and bouncy favorite, this entire history has been preserved and is on full display at the Jell-O Gallery Museum in LeRoy. Just a short walk from where the sweet treat was created, the museum is stuffed with fascinating facts, engaging exhibits, and intriguing images. During your visit there, you’ll discover that there’s much to learn about “America’s most famous dessert.”
• Strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon were the original flavors with others introduced over the years – some successful (lime and cherry among them) – some with a short life span (chocolate, cola, celery, and more).
• In 1904, 4-year old Elizabeth King was introduced as the “Jell-O Girl,” a tea kettle in one hand, a package of Jell-O in the other. Her appealing image remained associated with company advertising into the 1940s.
• Many famed artists of the day contributed to the company’s marketing, including the legendary Norman Rockwell, and Rose O’Neill, creator of the “Kewpies,” the first published female cartoonist in the United States.
• Several early radio and TV shows sponsored by Jell-O showcased celebrities of the day – Jack Benny, Roy Rogers, Bob Hope, and others.
• “Jell-O shots” are nothing new. Some surmise they were first created in the 1950s by American singer/songwriter/satirist Tom Lehrer as a means of avoiding alcohol restrictions when he was in the Army.
A Few Jell-O Fun Facts
• At the turn of the 20th century, the Genesee Pure Food Company seized an opportunity to convert the influx of Ellis Island immigrants into future loyal customers. At times, members of the arriving “huddled masses” were welcomed to America with a free bowl of Jell-O.
• Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 film version of The Ten Commandments depicts the spectacle of Moses parting the Red Sea. Theodore Roberts played Moses…The Red Sea was played by two huge slabs of Jell-O.
• In 1974, Dr. Adriane Upton in Hamilton Ontario (and later hospital technicians in Batavia, New York) tested a bowl of lime Jell-O with an EEG machine. The brain waves of the jiggly mass proved to be identical to those of an
• “I’ve never seen a horse like that before,” exclaims Dorothy (Judy Garland) in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Of course, she was speaking of the iconic film’s “Horse of a Different Color” whose color changes were due to the clever use of pastes created from Jell-O powders.
Take time for a visit!
The Jell-O Gallery Museum, operated by the LeRoy Historical Society, is located at 23 E. Main Street and is open weekdays year-round from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. From April 1 through December 31, it also opens Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. The museum is closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Easter.