Patriotic Jello Pie
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22 Things You Didn't Know About Jell-O

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Patriotic Jello Pie
liveslow/istockphoto

Always Room for Jell-O

There’s something comforting about Jell-O, that simple-if-jiggly edible pleasure that reminds us of cafeteria lunches back in elementary school. But Jell-O is a versatile product (and cooking ingredient) that’s certainly not stuck in the past. We take a walk through the history and trivia related to this — yes, we’ll say it — iconic element of the culinary world.

 

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Beef Bones
alpaksoy/istockphoto

Before Jell-O, Making Gelatin Dishes Took Hours — and Hooves

Being able to buy a gelatin product eased a once-daunting process, says Sarah Wassberg Johnson, an author, speaker, educator, podcaster and blogger known as The Food Historian. “Prior to the development of commercially powdered or granulated gelatin, creating gelatin-based desserts was extraordinarily labor-intensive and time-consuming." It involved "boiling beef bones or hooves for hours, chilling the stock, skimming the fat, and then heating again to clarify the gelatin and remove any meat flavor before adding to custards and fruit juices and placing in fancy molds and chilling a second time.”


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A Jell-O thermometer
A Jell-O thermometer by Visitor7 (CC BY-SA)

It Was Invented in the 19th Century

Parent company Kraft Heinz shared a few key dates that predated Jell-O's history but were important to its development. These include 1845, when Peter Cooper, inventor of the renowned locomotive “Tom Thumb,” obtained the first patent for a gelatin dessert. In 1895, Pearle B. Wait, a cough syrup maker in LeRoy, New York, decided to enter the packaged-food business. Finally, Wait adapted Cooper’s 1845 patent for a gelatin dessert, which would become Jell-O. Wait’s wife, May Davis Wait, coined the name Jell-O, which started production in 1897. 


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Original Jell-O Factory Historic Marker
Wikimedia Commons

Its Worth Grew Exponentially Early On

After Wait sold the business to Orator F. Woodward of the Genesee Pure Food Co. in 1899 for $450, Jell-O began to grow quickly. By 1902, sales hit $250,000 as Woodward began the first national advertising campaign for “America’s Most Famous Dessert” with a 3-inch ad in the Ladies Home Journal. On May 19, 1903, it became a registered U.S. trademark.

Original Jell-O Factory, Le Roy, New York
Wikimedia Commons

Jell-O and Its Competitors All Grew Out of One Area

Jell-O’s roots date to a surprisingly gelatin-history-rich part of upstate New York, says Wassberg Johnson: Jell-O operated out of LeRoy, and competitors Knox and Junket were in Johnstown and Little Falls, respectively. “So strange that all the major gelatinous dessert companies were there!" Wassberg Johnson says. "Little Falls and Johnstown are quite near to one another — in neighboring counties — and LeRoy is a fair bit farther west, out by Rochester, but all three are in the Mohawk River Valley, along the Erie Canal. Not sure if that played a role in their distribution, as by the late 19th century railroads were almost certainly their primary mode of distribution. But interesting nonetheless.”

 

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Quick, Easy Jell-O Wonder Dishes, Jell-O Cookbook
Wikimedia Commons

Its Uncomplicated Nature Made It Popular …

Noting "its enduring popularity," Wassberg Johnson notes that "Jell-O really took off when electric refrigeration did in the 1920s and ’30s. The ease of making a dessert that only required hot water and time in the fridge was appealing to housewives who were increasingly doing without hired household help and therefore needed simpler, more expedient meals.”


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Saving Pennies
Kameleon007/istockphoto

… And So Did Its Price Tag

“Jell-O was also quite inexpensive," Wassberg Johnson notes, "especially once the fruit flavorings and sugar were added, when compared to pie, cake, custards, or other popular desserts. With the addition of other convenience foods like canned fruits and the proliferation of fancy molds, it was easy to create visually stunning, tasty desserts.”

Jell-O Cups
JodiJacobson/istockphoto

There Have Been Dozens of Jell-O Flavors

Early flavor selection was limited — strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon — but Jell-O has gotten more inventive, with flavors such as cotton candy, margarita, root beer, bubble gum, and even coffee. The defunct website Mid-Century Menu tracked Jell-O flavors, finding everything from cola, apple, and pineapple grapefruit to seasoned tomato (for salads) and sparkling white grape, “the Champagne” of Jell-O introduced for the 100th anniversary.

 

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Lime Jell-O
HandmadePictures/istockphoto

Its Lime Flavor Was an Instant Hit

Some flavors made quite a hit on their own. Wassberg Johnson says that as Jell-O expanded its flavor lineup, consumers bought in, especially in 1930, when lime Jell-O was introduced. "it became the most popular flavor almost immediately — I think in part because it had both sweet and more savory applications.”

Jell-O - America's Most Famous Dessert
Wikimedia Commons

Early Advertising Campaigns Enlisted Famous Artists

Jell-O recipes became the rage in the early part of the 20th century, with recipe booklets often produced in vast quantities. Noted artists such as Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell helped the brand advance with their evocative color illustrations.

Jack Benny Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame stock photo
steinphoto/istockphoto

Its Famous Slogan Debuted on a Popular Radio Program

In 1934, the brand, then owned by the group that would be later known as General Foods, further expanded its reach when it started nearly 10 years of sponsorship of "The Jack Benny Program," introducing each episode with singing voices announcing: "J-E-L-L-OHHHHH … the Jell-O program starring Jack Benny …"

 

Related: Products Your Grandparents Swore By That Are Still Worth Buying

Pudding
MSPhotographic/shutterstock

The Brand Eventually Added Pudding to Its Lineup

In 1936, General Foods introduced Jell-O pudding in regional markets. Chocolate came first, soon followed by vanilla and butterscotch. By the following year, they were available throughout America.

Jello Salad
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It Has Inspired Many a Culinary Creation — Notably, Salads

For decades, Jell-O was served as a salad — and in many parts of the country, it still is, though it may not be as popular as it once was. Jell-O salads are part of the tradition dating back to medieval Europe when gelatin dishes were labor-intensive showpieces. The tradition continued in meat or seafood aspics, a style translated eventually to the American table when Jell-O became a way to incorporate leftovers, create a colorful side dish, or simply show off with a molded wonder.


Related: Jell-O Salad and Other Old-School Summer Recipes We Secretly Love 

Jell-O shots
TheCrimsonMonkey/istockphoto

Jell-O Shots Were 'Invented' in the 1950s

Ever had Jell-O shots? They substitute alcohol such as vodka or rum for a portion of water in the recipe — supposedly an invention by singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer "as a way to get around the alcohol restrictions" at Army bases where he was stationed in the '50s, according to the website What’s Cooking America.

Jell-O Hearts
vitaphoto/istockphoto

Its Popularity Declined, Prompting New Products

Starting in the 1960s, as sales began to fall, the brand started trying new things. Jell-O 1-2-3 was a product that would “magically” set into three layers of different consistencies and colors. Jell-O Pudding Pops soared to the national stage thanks to memorable commercials starring now-disgraced comic Bill Cosby. In the '90s the brand — again using Cosby in its commercials — promoted Jell-O Jigglers molds in shapes with themes such as NASCAR, cartoon characters, animals, and the alphabet. 

Layered Jello Salad at Picnic
DarcyMaulsby/istockphoto

It's Very Popular in Utah

Keep hearing about how popular Jell-O is in Utah? It was named the official Utah state snack food in 2001. What’s Cooking America explains that Kraft Foods' sales figures showed Salt Lake City as having the highest per-capita Jell-O consumption, and that Mormons, in particular, seem especially fond of it. Why? Theories abound, including that it's an acceptable substitute for vices such as caffeine and alcohol, and that it's an easy dessert to make for large church gatherings, which are common in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.


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Books
clu/istockphoto

Its History Has Inspired Many Books

Can’t imagine a whole book on Jell-O? There’s more than one, including: “Jell-O: A Biography,” by Carolyn Wyman; “Jell-O Girls: A Family History,” by Allie Rowbottom (a descendant of Orator F. Woodward); and “Celebrating 100 Years of Jell-O” by Publications International.

Green Jell-O
DreamBigPhotos/istockphoto

It's Been Used in Scientific Research

In the 1960s and '70s, neurologist Adrian Upton used lime Jell-O — noting it would be more photogenic than other flavors — in an experiment meant to show that EEG brain fluctuations can be misleading. The New York Times picked up the story in 1976, writing that the doctor did "a brain wave analysis of a blob of lime Jell‐O and obtained readings that he said could be mistaken as evidence of life." 

Crew Aboard The International Space Station ISS
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Jell-O Has Traveled to Space

In 1996, Jell-O brand gelatin rocketed into space with U.S. astronaut Shannon Lucid on a 140-day mission to the Russian space station Mir, where, according to The Oklahoman newspaper, she prepared it every week.

The Jell-O Museum in Le Roy, New York
Wikimedia Commons

It Has Its Own Museum

In 1997, Jell-O celebrated its 100th anniversary. That same year, the town of LeRoy, New York — where Jell-O got its start — opened a permanent Jell-O Gallery Museum dedicated to the brand’s history and featuring all kinds of memorabilia including original advertising art, molds, spoons, toys, collectibles, recipe books, and package inserts.


Related: Circus World and Other Weird Museums Across America and Beyond

Red Jello
bhofack2/istockphoto

Its Most Popular Flavor Is ...

Which flavor is the favorite? The brand reports that it's strawberry, and a crowdsourced competition over at Ranker.com agrees, with lime and berry blue following at second and third, respectively.

JELL-O Play Monster Edible Slime Gelatin Dessert Kit
Amazon

The Brand Has Gotten More Creative

In the summer of 2018, the brand launched Jell-O Play, a line of edible gelatin products designed to inspire families "to engage in free play and fun." Featuring three lines that can be molded, shaped, and built into anything participants want based on themes such as the ocean, jungle, and Legos. That launch was followed by the late-2018 introduction of Jell-O Slime — part of the Jell-O Play line and available in monster and unicorn versions.

Jell-O Salad
Funwithfood/istockphoto

It Has Inspired Thousands of Recipes

If all this has you craving something made with Jell-O, Kraft Heinz's “My Food and Family” site has more than 4,000 recipes featuring Jell-O products, including dishes sweet and savory. In that latter category, for example, there's the Chinese Takeout-Style Lemon Chicken, featuring lemon Jell-O. If that's a bit outside your comfort zone, try Low-Fat Orange Dream Cheesecake or the show-stopping Raspberry Summer Sensation.


Related: True Origins of Classic "American" Foods