Jell-O is one of the United States’ most recognized brands, its gelatin snacks and puddings ubiquitous at grocery stores and on hospital meal carts nationwide. But though gelatin has been a dessert staple for decades, it wasn’t mass-produced until the end of the 19th century, when a carpenter named Pearle Bixby Wait patented a powdered, flavored gelatin dessert dubbed “Jell-O.”
The rest is history, as they say, and that history lives on in Le Roy, N.Y., a working-class town located just south of Rochester that once served as Wait’s home and Jell-O’s birthplace.
Lynne Belluscio, 73, runs the LeRoy Historical Society and its Jell-O Gallery museum, whose small but charming collection of Jell-O memorabilia and historical documents helps tell the gelatin dessert’s fascinating tale. Though there’s lots of information available about Wait and Le Roy’s Jell-O factory, which operated in town until 1964, the gallery focuses specifically on Jell-O’s advertising, which helped transform Jell-O from a tasty powdered treat to a pervasive name brand.
“It really is the story of how J-E-L-L, hyphen O, becomes almost a generic name for a gelatin dessert,” said Belluscio, who helped establish the museum in an old schoolhouse in 1997. “It is part of the food traditions. Ask anybody and they’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t have any Jell-O stories,’ but then you say, ‘Well, your grandmother or your mother, somebody must have always served Jell-O at Thanksgiving or something.’ Then, they start telling you the stories.”
Jell-O’s origin story
Jell-O’s own story starts in 1897 when the aforementioned Wait concocted a flavored, colored gelatin dessert you could purchase in a ready-to-make package. Wait wasn’t the first person to birth gelatin from instant powder—according to the New York Times, that honorific goes to Peter Cooper, of Cooper Union fame—but he was the first to brand it. Wait’s wife, May, suggested the name Jell-O, which Wait patented and copyrighted. “There were other flavored gelatins around, but the brilliance of that was, to say, ‘We’re going to call this Jell-O,’” Belluscio said.
Wait didn’t know how to market his good idea, though, so in 1899 he sold the name to a Le Roy businessman named Orator Woodward, for $450 (about $12,000 in today’s currency). “It’s really Orator Woodward and his successors who propel Jell-O into becoming, ‘America’s Most Famous Dessert,’” Belluscio said.
Jell-O had two things working in its favor. For one, it was cheap. “In Victorian times, [gelatin] was only something the elite ever ate,” Belluscio said. “Most people had never eaten a jelly like that. All of a sudden, for 10 cents and two cups of boiling water, you could have the food that the rich people were having. It democratized an elitist food.”
Color ads and a name brand
The other benefit? The color. “When [Jell-O] was first introduced, most advertising was in black and white,” Belluscio said. But by the turn of the century, magazines started printing color advertisements, and that’s where luminous Jell-O hit its stride.”
Belluscio continued: “The company hired illustrators and cartoonists like Rose O’Neill, creator of the Kewpies, to craft ads featuring resplendent bright red Jell-O molds, attracting consumers who were unused to both colorful ads and colorful desserts.”
Another key to Jell-O’s success? “The rise in color ads also happened to coincide with a rise in name-brand foodstuffs, which did a lot for Jell-O’s recognizability,” explained Belluscio. “Unlike shoppers at today’s grocery stores, shoppers in the early 1900s couldn’t peruse aisles and pick out the brands that looked best to them. Instead, they’d have to ask shopkeepers to measure goods out for them—hence why brands were so insistent on earning name recognition in early ads.”