Apr 17, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Food connects us – to each other and to our past. One of my favorite taglines supporting this idea comes from Penzey’s Spices: “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” While experts say smell is the sense most connected to memory, taste is like a trip back in time for me. One forkful of my great-grandmother’s roast beef takes me back to her large dining room table and her gracious smile. More recently I made my grandma’s strawberry pie recipe which reminded me of birthday parties and her sweet hugs. Reconnecting with treasured memories through food is the best way to time travel. (And if you can enjoy something tasty & joyful – that’s all the better!) So what makes my grandma’s strawberry pie so extra special? Jell-o. In fact, Jell-o has quite the honored place in American food history. Join me as we say hello Jell-o!
Jell-o’s story begins in the mid-1800s with the creation of a simple, flavorless gelatin product. Patented with little fanfare, one would not expect that from these humble beginnings a ubiquitous food empire would be built. After nearly 50 years sitting on the shelf, a carpenter named Pearle Wait began experimenting with the recipe by adding fruit flavoring. We have his wife Mary to thank for the iconic name, but even with a snazzy name like Jell-o, the Waits didn’t see much commercial success. And this is where our story takes off…
Fun fact: the first fruit flavors offered were orange, lemon, strawberry and raspberry
In 1899 a disappointed Pearle & Mary Wait sold their flavored Jell-o for $450 (approx $12,000 in today’s money) to local entrepreneur Orator Frank Woodward. Frank came into the acquisition with proven business success, but with no real food industry background. Undaunted, he began manufacturing the wiggly dessert in Lyons, New York. Less than a year later Frank was ready to move on, fearing that he’d made a horrible investment. Angered by lack of profit, he offered all his interests for $35 (about $1,000 in today’s money to put it in perspective) to Sam Nico. After this harrowing journey, would the fourth time prove the charm for our beloved dessert? You betcha! The year was 1900 and Jell-o was finally marketed to the average, American consumer.
Why this success where others had failed? The secret is in the pitch as the marketing campaigns led by William E. Humelbaugh spoke directly to housewives eager to try something new, exciting, and tasty. Jell-o’s brilliant combination of free recipes, free samples, and full-color ads made sales soar. Just how high did they soar? The equivalent of $7.3 million dollars in the first two years alone! To build momentum, Jell-o issued recipe booklets illustrated by famous artists (even Norman Rockwell lent his brush to the effort). These booklets took brand recognition to the next level and by 1904 Jell-o landed their first spokesperson. A sweet, four-year-old girl by the name of Elizabeth King holds the honor. Her reign lasted for a few years, but by the time of the Depression a new marketing campaign was born. This was the era of the radio. Spokespersons were not only the face of a product, but the voice as well. By the mid-1930s devoted listeners heard Jack Benny sing the praises of J-E-L-L-O over the air waves. Making and eating Jell-o was in fashion.
The rest, as they say, is history. Jell-o’s profits continued to soar, sometimes doubling year after year. Following WWII, Jell-o experienced a culinary renaissance as busy moms (many who were new to the workforce) looked for quick meal options. Jell-o was seen as a miracle food once more – a magical food where you could suspend tasty treats in mid-air. Even though gelatin wasn’t new, with clever marketing Jell-o stayed relevant, perfectly capturing the space age excitement that was sweeping the nation. Jell-o inspired recipes were the talk of every neighborhood potluck and even though some of those vintage recipes are a bit cringe-worthy, Jell-o still holds a special place in my heart. Tell me dear reader, what are some of the vintage recipes or foods that connect you with your family or your history? Tell us about them in the comments…