Let’s celebrate America’s favorite dessert: Jell-O

The cover of a Jell-O Cookbook, circa 1930, is pictured. (Photos courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

A 1904 edition of Ladies Home Journal proclaimed in an ad that Jell-O was America’s favorite dessert What is it about Jell-O that we love so much? Is it the jiggle, the 101 dishes you can make with it, or is it the molds or the Jell-O shots we’ve come to love? Let’s take a look at its history and some fun Jell-O facts as well.

Gelatin, which is the main ingredient in Jell-O has been an after dinner treat for the wealthy since at least the 15th century. Gelatin is tasteless and odorless and is extracted from animal protein. After boiling hooves and bones, the liquid is strained, the fat removed and is ready for flavoring. By 1845, Peter Cooper devised a way of mass producing it and grinding it into a powder he called “Portable Gelatin.” All you needed to do was to add hot water. He never really marketed the product, so the patent lapsed.

Pearl and May Wait found and obtained the patent for powdered gelatin in 1897. Since gelatin lacks taste, they combined it with syrup. They had run a cough syrup business before, so they knew something about syrups. The original four flavors they came up with were strawberry, raspberry, lemon and orange. The gelatin finally tasted good, although it was now 88 percent sugar. May named the new dessert Jell-O, a combination of the words gelatin and jelly. The O was a popular trend at the time added to the end of a product brand, remember Brillo.

While the Waits may have been good at creating Jell-O, they were not good at marketing it. They lacked investment capital and marketing experience. Their neighbor Frank Woodward owned Genesee Food Company and he bought the formula, patent and the name for $450. He already owned a packaged food company so selling a product was right up his alley. He began offering free samples to customers, however sales still lagged. In 1904 he decided to invest in a $336 ad in the national magazine Ladies Home Journal.

The ad featured women wearing white aprons declaring Jell-O as “America’s Favorite Dessert.”

These ads proved to be a huge success and annual sales jumped to a whopping $250,000, about $6.2 million today. Beautiful hand drawn pictures showed pantries filled with Jell-O boxes and children begging for a taste. Woodward began printing recipe books for homemakers providing instructions and ideas for Jell-O desserts.

Another one of his ingenious marketing ideas was to give every immigrant arriving at Ellis Island a free Jell-O mold. What better way to assure future sales of the product. He also introduced the Jell-O girl, a 4 year old girl played by Elizabeth King, who said “You can’t be a kid without it” while holding a teapot in one hand and a Jell-O package in the other.

By the 1920s Jell-O was one of the most well-known food brands in American history. Frank Woodward’s company became simply the Jell-O Company. Norman Rockwell was a rising artist and he was hired to create ads for the company. One of his most famous, portrayed a young girl serving Jell-O to her doll at a tea party. And if that wasn’t enough, with the popularity of radio, Jack Benny sang the new jingle “J-E-L-L-O” to the world in 1934.

In 1964 Kraft Foods, a huge conglomerate, took over production. When sales started to decline in the 1970s, a 37 year old comedian named Bill Cosby was hired as a spokesperson. It worked and sales returned to former heights. The relationship between Cosby and Jell-O would last for more than 30 years and is the longest standing celebrity endorsement in advertising history.

In 2001, a Utah state representative introduced State Resolution 5, declaring that Jell-O brand gelatin be recognized as the favorite snack of Utah. It passed and it is now the state’s favorite snack food. Jell-O is so popular with the Mormons, sales figures released by Kraft showed that Utah had the highest per-capita Jell-O consumption of anywhere else in the country. The Mormon area in Utah is often referred to as the “Jell-O Belt.”

Like the longtime spokesman Bill Cosby, MarketWatch predicted in 2015 that the Jell-O brand might come to an end. Not so. Over the holiday season when you serve a molded Jell-O salad or dessert, think of the brand’s interesting backstory. Everything has a history to tell.