Gelatin, a protein produced from collagen extracted from boiled bones, connective tissues, and other animal products, has been a component of food, particularly desserts, since the 15th century.
Gelatin was popularized in the west in the Victorian era with spectacular and complex “jelly moulds”. Gelatin was sold in sheets and had to be purified, which was time-consuming. Gelatin desserts were the province of Royalty and the relatively well-to-do. In 1845, a patent for powdered gelatin was obtained by industrialist Peter Cooper, who built the first American steam-powered locomotive, the Tom Thumb. This powdered gelatin was easy to manufacture and easier to use in cooking.
In 1897, in LeRoy, New York, carpenter and cough syrup manufacturer, Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked a gelatin dessert, called Jell-O. He and his wife May added strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon flavoring to granulated gelatin and sugar. Then in 1899, Jell-O was sold to Orator Woodward, whose Genesee Pure Food Company produced the successful Grain-O health drink. Part of the legal agreement between Woodward and Wait dealt with the similar Jell-O name.
Various elements were key to Jell-O becoming a mainstream product: new technologies, such as refrigeration, powdered gelatin and machine packaging, home economics classes, and the company’s marketing.
Initially Woodward struggled to sell the powdered product. Beginning in 1902, to raise awareness, Woodward’s Genesee Pure Food Company placed advertisements in the Ladies’ Home Journal proclaiming Jell-O to be “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” Jell-O was a minor success until 1904, when Genesee Pure Food Company sent armies of salesmen into the field to distribute free Jell-O cookbooks, a pioneering marketing tactic. Within a decade, three new flavors, chocolate (discontinued in 1927), cherry and peach, were added, and the brand was launched in Canada. Celebrity testimonials and recipes appeared in advertisements featuring actress Ethel Barrymore and opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Some Jell-O illustrated advertisements were painted by Maxfield Parrish.
In 1923, the newly rechristened Jell-O Company launched D-Zerta, an artificially sweetened version of Jell-O. Two years later, Postum and Genesee merged, and in 1927 Postum acquired Clarence Birdseye’s frozen foods company to form the General Foods Corporation.