JELL-O is “America’s Most Famous Dessert,” and a small town that sits between Buffalo and Rochester, only five minutes off I-90, is known as the “Hometown of JELL-O.” There, in LeRoy, N.Y., at the JELL-O Galley Museum, Lynne Belluscio, the director of the JELL-O Gallery as well as Executive Director of the LeRoy Historical Society, shared her knowledge about the gelatin dessert and its history.
“Everyone seems to have a JELL-O story,” Ms. Belluscio said, “If you have a box of JELL-O, it begs you to do something creative.” The JELL-O Gallery is a tribute to the force of the brand’s ever-changing recipes and advertising, which has made it a household name for more than 110 years.
Although the origin of gelatin desserts is unknown, they date back at least to Napoleon Bonaparte; Bonaparte’s wedding cake baker recorded a recipe for “Orange-Flower and Pink Champagne Jelly.” Creating gelatin, composed of pure animal protein, from scratch had been a laborious task — the process took two days and involved boiling and straining calves’ feet, then adding sugar and flavorings — and most families had neither the time nor the means to create the popular jellied dessert. Only the rich, with servants to attend to the time-consuming endeavor, could partake of this luxury.
In the early 1800s, purified gelatin became broadly available in general stores, sold shredded or in sheets. Knox, another American gelatin company erected in Johnstown, N.Y. (a city located 50 miles northwest of Albany), pulverized the sheets into granules.
Toward the end of the century, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in LeRoy, began experimenting with gelatin. He had often tinkered with edibles, producing cough remedies and laxative teas in his home kitchen. After adding fruit flavors to gelatin, in 1897 Wait created and patented the fruit dessert that his wife named “JELL-O.” The etymology of this name, however, remains unknown, according to author Carolyn Wyman in her book “JELL-O: A Biography: The History and Mystery of America’s Most Famous Dessert.”
Lacking the marketing know-how and capital to grow the busienss, in 1899 Wait sold his formula to a fellow townsman for $450. The purchaser, Orator Frank Woodward, was owner of the Genesee Pure Foods Company. Also an inventor, he patented a “composition nest egg,” which was placed inside a hen coop and had the “miraculous power to kill lice on hens when hatching,” and later sold Grain-O, a roasted, cereal-based liquid substitute for coffee and tea that, according to its advertising, was an alternative to the unhealthy side effects of caffeine. Sales were slow for JELL-O when Woodward owned it, and he offered the business to his employee Sam Nico, manufacturing supervisor of the Genesee Pure Food Company, at a major loss, for only $35.
In 1902, the Genesee Pure Food Company first used the JELL-O name. With a national marketing campaign executed by door-to-door salesmen, that same year sales reached $250,000. Anyone could now make a gelatin food for just pennies. “JELL-O democratized this food,” Ms. Belluscio said.
Twenty-three years later, JELL-O Company, Inc. was sold to the Postum Cereal Company, Inc. by exchange of stock, the first transaction in a larger merger that would become General Foods Corporation. JELL-O manufacturing stayed in LeRoy until 1964. The factory was situated along the railroad line, which made transporting materials easy. Today JELL-O is manufactured in Dover, Del. by Kraft General Foods.
Throughout its history, JELL-O’s phenomenal marketing campaigns have made it renowned and a mainstay in American cupboards. “You can trace social history through JELL-O ads,” Ms. Belluscio noted. “In the 1890s, they talked about how it was so much lighter than eating cakes. In the Depression, they advertised that you could feed your entire family with one ten-cent box. In the Cold War, they used nursery rhymes, such as the 1955 ad, “Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, but both could eat more JELL-O than anyone you’ve seen!” In Hollywood, they used JELL-O to part the Red Sea [in the 1956 film “The Ten Commandments”]. They used it to color the horses in the “Wizard of Oz”: they actually had to keep the animals apart so they wouldn’t lick the color off one another.” Brand advertisements could be found on billboards, in “Ladies Home Journal” and on the radio, including a performance of the famous singsong “J-E-L-L-O” jingle by Jack Benny. JELL-O recipe books were bestsellers by the millions.
The marketing of JELL-O has included some megastars, including New Yorkers: Jamestown’s Lucille Ball (click to hear the JELL-O promotion on the closing of her radio show, “My Favorite Husband” in December 1949); New York Yankees players Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Bobby Richardson and Whitey Ford, who were featured on playing cards appearing on the back of JELL-O boxes, now collector’s items; Long Island native Lindsay Lohan, before she was known, as a child in a commercial promoting Grape JELL-O.
Indubitably, the most famous celebrity associated with JELL-O is comedian Bill Cosby. Beginning in 1974, Cosby starred in dozens of commercials to promote a variety of JELL-O creations, including chocolate pudding, frozen pudding pops, and JELL-O Jigglers. Cosby made an appearance at the Utah State Senate in 2001 to designate JELL-O as Utah’s official state snack. At the time, Salt Lake City had the highest per capita consumption of the dessert in the world. In 2004, Cosby made a promotional visit to the JELL-O Gallery in LeRoy, where he was presented with his own brick in the JELL-O Brick Road, an embedded brick walkway that leads to the Gallery’s entrance. (Anyone can purchase an inscribed brick in the JELL-O Brick Road for $50.) The JELL-O Gallery exhibits a large display that reflects Cosby’s time as JELL-O’s spokesperson, as well as videos on loop of well-known commercials and advertisements.
Following an exhibition at the Strong Museum in Rochester, the JELL-O Gallery opened under the auspices of the LeRoy Historical Society in 1997. Situated in a renovated former high school building, the gallery offers a wealth of information. It is not affiliated with Kraft General Foods, but rather it is a tribute to the history of JELL-O and its impact in LeRoy. With one full-time and six part-time staff members, as well as at least one hundred volunteers throughout the year, the history of JELL-O is explained to at least 10,000 to 12,000 visitors from all 50 states throughout the year. On display, one sees original commissioned oil paintings depicting molded JELL-O, giant spoons from a design that appeared in Times Square, JELL-O themed Barbie dolls, dozens of dessert molds and much more. It’s part of New York’s vibrant history that’s so odd it’s good.
The JELL-O Gallery is located at 23 East Main Street and is open everyday April through December and weekdays January through March. Tickets are $4.50 for adults, $1.50 for children six to 11 and free for children five and under.
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