Cooper Union Founder’s Gelatinous Legacy Revealed!

You may know Peter Cooper as the founder of Cooper Union, but did you know that he’s also the father of one of America’s favorite amorphous desserts? It’s true! Among the multi-tasking manufacturer, inventor, and philanthropist’s many achievements is obtaining the first American patent for the manufacture of gelatin. Michael Pollak elaborated on this fascinating historical fact in the Metropolitan section of yesterday’s New York Times, noting that Cooper’s 1845 gelatin patent “was an offshoot of his successful glue factory, gelatin being essentially purified glue. His wife, Sarah, suggested adding fruit.”

The patent described “a transparent concentrated or solidified jelly containing all the ingredients fitting it for table use,” according to Jell-O, a Biography by Carolyn Wyman.

Cooper’s gelatin, which sold for decades, and a similar product made by the Knox Company apparently lacked pizazz. That, Ms. Wyman wrote, was supplied by Jell-O’s actual father, Pearle Bixby Wait of LeRoy, N.Y., who in 1897 added colors, flavors and varieties to granulated gelatin. The first varieties were raspberry, lemon, orange, and strawberry. His wife, May, came up with the name Jell-O. In 1899, Wait sold the rights to Jell-O to the Genesee Pure Food Company of LeRoy for $450.

Wait, a carpenter, allegedly created Jell-O in 1897 whilst whipping up a cough remedy and laxative tea at his home in LeRoy. The western New York town (that wiggles between the one-word spelling and “Le Roy”) remains the home of the Jell-O Gallery, a museum that celebrates the dessert’s rich, translucent history. Meanwhile, Cooper’s other inventions include a rotary steam engine, a method of siphoning power from ocean tides, a method for making salt (does it involve ocean tides?), a machine for shaping wheel hubs, and a musical cradle (glue optional).