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Once given its trademarked name, Jell-O quickly became "America's Most Famous Dessert" with more than one million boxes sold every day by the late 1990s. Even more than apple pie or hot dogs, Jell-O epitomizes not just American cuisine, but America itself and has been one of its most enduring icons. Powdered gelatin, invented in 1845 by Peter Cooper, was one of the first convenience foods in America, making the arduous task of preparing gelatin from scratch—boiling calf's hoofs for hours—merely a matter of adding water to powder and leaving in a cool place to set. Not until the end of the century, however, did the concept of granulated gelatin catch on. In 1897, Pearl B. Wait invented a fruit-flavored gelatin, named Jell-O by his wife. Because of low sales, he sold the patent to Orator Francis Woodward in 1899 for $450. Woodward began his first advertising campaign in 1902, making Jell-O, manufactured by the Genesee Pure Food Company of Leroy, New York, a worthy contender with Knox, Cox, Plymouth Rock, and other instant gelatins on the market at the time.

Although gelatin was an important ingredient in aspics and desserts, its rigorous preparation requirements meant that before the turn of the century it only graced the tables of the wealthy, who had the time, money, equipment, and paid labor to make such dishes. Preparations like powdered gelatins democratized desserts in America. Jell-O, the most popular, was inexpensive, initially selling for ten cents a box, and simple to make. Further, Jell-O instituted a premium system that allowed one to send away for free "melon" molds with the purchase of so many boxes of Jell-O products. Even in its early years, Jell-O came in a variety of flavors that allowed women to create many bright, fanciful dishes; strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon were the first flavors and continued to be the most popular. Jell-O also offered an Ice Cream Powder which, something like a frozen pudding, brought a variation of the frozen confection to the homes of the masses. In addition to these, the Genesee began producing D-Zerta, the first sugar-free gelatin, in 1923. Later that same year, the company changed its name to the Jell-O Company, and was then acquired by the Postum Company in 1925, forming the foundation for what would become General Foods. Rounding out its product line, the Jell-O Company introduced its pudding powder in 1929, eventually making 51 different flavors.

Advertising played a key role in Jell-O's popularity over other gelatins and made it the quintessential "American" dessert. From the beginning, brightly colored promotional recipe booklets touted the Jell-O product line and also educated women about how to use this new foodstuff. The Jell-O Girl appeared in 1903 as the personification of Jell-O's purity and ease of preparation. In later years the talents of well-known people were instituted to promote Jell-O. Rose O'Neil, creator of Kewpie dolls, refashioned the Jell-O Girl in 1908. In the 1920s, such familiar artists as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish illustrated its print material. Even L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz series, published a set of his books in conjunction with Jell-O.

In later years, as advertising media expanded, so did Jell-O's use of popular talents, including famous celebrities. Jack Benny and Mary Livingston promoted it on radio, coming up with the catchy "J-E-LL-O" tune. Kate Smith sang the praises of Jell-O in magazine advertisements during World War II. In the 1950s, such luminaries as Roy Rogers, Andy Griffith, and Ethel Barrymore became spokespeople. From the 1970s through the 1990s, beloved actor and comedian Bill Cosby was the chief spokesperson for Jell-O and Jell-O Pudding.

As a food, Jell-O has recorded transformations in eating patterns and ethnic and regional variations in American foodways. Jane and Michael Stern have said that "More than any other food, Jell-O symbolizes how America really eats … Jell-O is Americana in a mold." At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jell-O proved to be an affordable and accessible version of a previously upper-class food, hence its great appeal. In later years it reflected events in American history and changes in food fads. During World War I, Jell-O still sold for ten cents a box and appealed to a woman's need to live within her budget during the expensive war years. During World War II, Jell-O answered the needs brought on by food rationing, as it could make low-sugar desserts and main dish salads.

Because Jell-O by nature is a colorful and moldable substance, the things made from it have embodied America's aesthetic sensibilities of the time, from daring dishes like Egg Slices en Gelée in the roaring 1920s to modern one-crust instant pudding pies in the convenience-driven 1950s to postmodern creations like Pistachio Almond Delight—also known as Watergate Salad—in the 1980s. Jell-O not only manifested adult preoccupations but also appealed to the younger set. Ever since the days of the Jell-O Girl, Jell-O was associated with children, who have comprised a large group of Jell-O's consumers. Bill Cosby's 1970s "Kids Love Pudding" campaign was followed by the advent of multi-colored, multi-shaped Jell-O Jigglers for children of the 1980s, and increased the popularity of gelatin-based candies like Gummy Bears in the 1980s and Gummy Worms in the 1990s.

Jell-O's versatility has been a large factor in its enduring nature as an icon in American culture during the twentieth century. It has frequently appeared as a palliative dessert on hospital meal trays, accompanied families to potluck dinners as a side dish, and shown up in the lunch boxes of school children. It has also been used in ways not officially approved of by the General Foods Corporation. Jell-O "shooters," popular in the 1980s and 1990s, were college novelty cocktails that mixed Jell-O powder with vodka or grain alcohol and, once congealed, were eaten with spoons out of cups or by the cube from trays. Novelty wrestling, a popular bar entertainment during the 1980s, involved body-to-body combat of typically scantily-clad women; when not wrestling in mud, they wrestled in Jell-O, with lime being the most popular color/flavor.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Publications International. Celebrating One Hundred Years of Jell-O. Lincolnwood, Illinois, Publications International, Ltd., 1997.

Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. New York, Harper Collins, 1990.