How the Rise of Colorful, Illustrated Ads Helped Turn Jell-O Into a Household Name

A museum dedicated to the gelatin dessert showcases its history

Jell-O's coloring helped it pop when colored ads were introduced.

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LeRoy Historical Society and its Jell-O Gallery museum, whose small but charming collection of Jell-O memorabilia and historical documents helps tell the gelatin dessert’s fascinating tale.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.”

“At the beginning of the introduction of Jell-O, let’s say the 1880s and 1890s, when you went to the store, there were barrels of crackers, there were barrels of flour, there were barrels of sugar, and you would order, ‘I’d like a pound of sugar, I’d like a bag full of crackers, I’d like two pounds of coffee,’” Belluscio said. “When advertising hit the magazines, they wanted you to buy things by name, like Gold Medal Flour, Maxwell House Coffee. You’d see [ads that say], ‘Ask for Domino Sugar, ask for Gold Medal Flour, ask for Maxwell House Coffee, ask for Jell-O Gelatin.’”

“They were very specific about asking for it by name,” she added.

The Jell-O Gallery has a large number of these early illustrated advertisements in its collection, including four original Rose O’Neill works dating back to around 1909. “She was one of the earliest of the women illustrators, and became a millionaire,” Belluscio said. “She did over a hundred illustrations for Jell-O. At that time, probably her name was almost synonymous with Jell-O.”

Famous illustrators

The gallery also boasts a slew of advertisements from the 1920s which, according to Belluscio, is when Jell-O’s advertising really hit its stride. “In the 1920s, Norman Rockwell illustrates for them, Maxfield Parrish illustrates for them, and a lot of really well-known illustrators that we don’t know about. Angus MacDonald, John Newton Howitt,” Belluscio said. “This is the golden age of illustration.”

By the end of World War II, Jell-O was a major household name, and with that came name brand illustrators, including Syd Hoff, author and illustrator of Danny and the Dinosaur. Thanks to campaigns spearheaded by Young & Rubicam, in the 1950s and ‘60s Jell-O had tie-ins with cartoon strips, radio spots on popular programs like The Jack Benny Show and even baseball cards.

In 1964 Jell-O—by then owned by General Foods—moved production from Le Roy for Dover, Del., and though Jell-O’s prominence in the American lexicon carried on well past the Le Roy factory’s closure, the Jell-O Gallery’s collection more or less ends there.

“We try to keep up with information after that, but it’s pretty much up through 1964,” Belluscio, a former teacher, said. But the half-century worth of stuff the gallery contains is fascinating—in addition to the vintage ads, the museum’s got everything from testimonials of Jell-O factory workers, to the original $450 contract that handed the Jell-O name from Wait to Woodward, to a wall of over 100 Jell-O molds dating all the way back to Victorian times.

Jell-O heritage and today’s brand

Jell-O is currently owned by The Kraft Heinz Company, and the museum isn’t technically connected to the company, though they do help fund a billboard for the gallery on the New York State Thruway.

“Le Roy, New York is where the Jell-O brand was invented, so we’re happy there’s a place like the Jell-O Gallery to showcase the incredible history and all the fun qualities of Jell-O,” Kraft spokesperson Lynne Galia told Adweek in a statement. Indeed, having this ode to Jell-O’s heritage, small as it is, is a nice cultural advantage for Jell-O, a brand that’s managed to both celebrate its Americana roots and stay relevant in 2018.

But Jell-O might benefit more by partnering with the Jell-O Gallery—at least that’s what Valerie Aurilio, executive creative director at Landor Chicago, said (full disclosure: Kraft currently works with Landor).

“Jell-O has this amazing advantage of having a very rich heritage. Brands that have a rich heritage, that have an origin story in our culture have a coveted position, I think, because they’re part of American culture,” Aurilio told Adweek. “But if they don’t maintain a clear relevance to today’s culture, and a strong modern activation of the brand, it could serve to keep the brand relegated to the past.”

Jell-O’s done what it can to keep up with changing times, thanks to initiatives like the health-conscious “Simply Good” line, which focuses on natural ingredients and flavors, as well as its social media presence on Pinterest and Instagram, where fans can share recipes and photos of their favorite Jell-O concoctions.

“The celebration of dessert and ingredient stories and recipes is huge for Jell-O, and they continue to do that,” Aurilio said. “They’ve been able to take the history of what you see in the [Jell-O Gallery] well into the Pinterest age and be relevant in that recipe space, which is pretty cool.”

Since the Jell-O Gallery’s collection more or less ends in 1964, Aurilio noted, it could do Jell-O the disservice of making the brand seem quaint rather than relevant.

“It might not be a comment necessarily on the gallery, but maybe an opportunity for brands to think about and celebrate where they’re being celebrated as part of the culture independently. Which is a huge thing for a brand, to have people celebrate it independently,” Aurilio said. “But then there’s opportunity for partnership and activation between the modern-day brand and the heritage, and the people who are preserving that history.”

Meanwhile, Le Roy residents get to bask in the glory of living in the hometown of one of the country’s best-known brands, though, as Belluscio pointed out, it’s not the only big thing born in the town. “Le Roy is also the birthplace of the snap bean,” Belluscio said. Snap beans don’t jiggle, though, so Jell-O wins out.

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