To the modern American, the sweet gelatin dessert known as Jell-O is an institution. Just tear open the wrapper, pour boiling water over the powder, and refrigerate in a bowl or mold. Jell-O’s a lot easier to make than pie.
Sure, we take Jell-O for granted, until we realize what our forefathers, or foremothers, had to go through to serve a bowlful of the shimmering dessert.
Before the turn of the century, gelatin was a functional food item rather than a treat. Jellies and aspics had been used since the days of ancient Greece to bind, glaze, and preserve other foods. Just think of the canned hams packed in aspic you buy today.
We think of gelatin basically as a dessert; but in former times, cooks flavored their gelatins with vinegar, wine, almond extract, and other items that produced a tart rather than sweet product. Those cooks hardly had need of a sweet jelly, since the items they glazed were more often meats than sweets.
As long ago as the Renaissance, chefs took pride in constructing elaborate gelatin molds, and no dinner party was complete without at least one jelly construction worthy of the best modern-day wedding cake baker. In the nineteenth century, the most popular mold designs were castles and fortresses complete with doors, windows, and crenellated turrets.
Before this century, the glue needed for gelatin, called collagen, had to be laboriously extracted from meat bones. In the Middle Ages, deer antlers were a popular source of the glue; and later, calves’ feet and knuckles. Housewives in the nineteenth century used isinglass, made from the membranes of fish bladders.
Gelatin-making was a daylong affair, requiring the tedious scraping of hair from the feet, hours of boiling and simmering with egg whites to degrease and clarify the broth, and careful filtering through jelly bags or “filtering stools.” The transparent finished product was then dried into sheets, leaves, or rounds.
Not the easiest process in the world, you’ll agree. Charles B. Knox thought so, too. In 1890, the Jamestown, New York man was watching his wife make calves’ foot jelly when he decided that a prepackaged, easy to use gelatin mix was just what the housewife needed. Knox set out to develop, manufacture, and distribute the granulated gelatin, while his wife invented recipes for the new kitchen staple.
A few years later, a Le Roy, New York woman named May Wait didn’t wait for Knox to flavor his gelatin, and concocted a mix of sugar, powdered gelatin, and artificial fruit flavors that she christened Jell-O. Actually, a powdered gelatin dessert had been invented fifty years earlier by the same Peter Cooper credited with the invention of the “Tom Thumb” locomotive. But it wasn’t until the development of the icebox at the end of the century that America was ready for gelatin desserts.
Wait’s product found its way to few American tables before it was bought by the food tycoon Frank Woodward, who was already marketing a coffee and tea substitute named Grain-O. A genius in packaging, mass marketing, and advertising, within a few years Woodward turned Jell-O into a household word. The 10 cent carton advertised a “delicious dessert” that was “delicate, delightful, and dainty,” and the Jell-O trademark of a young girl with carton and kettle in hand soon appeared on store displays, dishes, spoons, and other promotional articles.
To show the housewife how versatile the product was, Woodward’s company distributed free booklets with Jell-O recipes. One booklet alone ran to a printing of 15 million copies!
By 1925, Jell-O was a big-money industry. In that year Jell-O joined Postum to form General Foods, today one of the largest corporations in America. Talk about humble beginnings!
By the 1930’s, Jell-O had become a way of life. In the Midwest, no Sunday dinner was complete without a concoction known as Golden Glow salad, Jell-O laced with grated carrot and canned pineapple and served with gobs of mayonnaise.
Knox Gelatine tried to discourage the rush toward Jell-O with ads warning shoppers to spurn “sissy-sweet salads” that were “85 percent sugar.” While Knox stressed the purity of their odorless, tasteless, sugarless gelatin, Jell-O highlighted their product’s versatility.
As for the belief that gelatin is good for the hair and nails, the only claim made by either Jell-O or Knox is that their product “may” do some good for “some people’s” hair and nails.
Today, you’d be hard put to find a beanery that didn’t offer at least one flavor of the fruity dessert. Gelatin is very popular among dieters, especially the sugarless D-Zerta variety, and many restaurants serve elaborate specials of jell-o, fruit, and cottage cheese. In modern health conscious America, Jell-O has become the highly touted alternative to “junk food” desserts.