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Random Thoughts

Hello Jell-o

Hudson Cooper
Posted 8/13/21

Like most children I would power through whatever my parents put on the dinner table to get to dessert. Meatloaf, broccoli, mashed potatoes and a salad were just obstacles standing in the way of an …

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Random Thoughts

Hello Jell-o


Like most children I would power through whatever my parents put on the dinner table to get to dessert. Meatloaf, broccoli, mashed potatoes and a salad were just obstacles standing in the way of an anticipated snack. Once the table was cleared and the dishes washed, my brother and I heard the magic words, “kids, dessert’s ready.” We ran back to the kitchen table to claim our sweet reward.

A slice of pie, pudding or occasionally some ice cream was our just dessert. But for most of America, the number one dessert was Jell-O! In fact, way back in 1904 magazines were calling Jell-O “America’s Favorite Dessert!”

How did Jell-O become so popular and who invented it? Many historians trace Jell-O’s roots to the Egyptians, many years B.C. Note to my readers: I used B.C. in the traditional way. Hey, Hey, Hey…It is not a reference to the once popular spokesman for Jell-O products including “Puddin’ Pops.”

The sweet jiggly dessert that so many of us eat has a surprising back story. During the Victorian age, farmers created gelatin by boiling the hoofs of cows and pigs in a large kettle. The hot water broke down the collagen attached to the bones. It was then pressed into layers and dried out in the sun. The top layer of fat was skimmed off leaving what is known as gelatin. To give it a sweet taste, flavoring was added and the result was served as dessert.

Eventually, gelatin caught on through Europe and America. Maybe in response to Dolly Madison serving ice cream, Thomas Jefferson began serving gelatin to his dinner guests.

Cooks began trying to come up with a way to make it without going through the time-consuming boiling and drying method. Not many hosts were willing to spend hours preparing gelatin.

So much to the relief of cooks and of course, hoof loving pigs and cows, along came an inventor named Peter Cooper. Before you ask, Peter Cooper is no relation to me according to one of those ancestry tracing sites. Too bad because it would have been nice to get my hands on some of that wiggly jiggly Jell-O money.

Peter Cooper is most well-known for developing America’s first steam locomotive named Tom Thumb. He made his gelatin by inventing a way to grind the dried gelatin into powder. Then by adding hot water the dessert was made. In 1845, he was granted US Patent 4084 for a gelatin dessert that he called the uninspired name “Portable Gelatin.”

As with any invention, you can google his patent to see a rather lengthy description of the process. Cooper had little interest in monetizing his gelatin and instead concentrated on developing a powdered glue, a concept that never stuck.

Years later in a small town named Leroy in upstate New York, a couple named May and Pearl Wait had an unsuccessful laxative and cough syrup business. Since “neither end” of their business was lucrative, May decided to sell her line of desserts. They came across Cooper’s concept of powdered gelatin and decided to improve on it. By utilizing the vats of syrup that previously were added to their cough medicine, they sweetened the gelatin. Their gelatin was now over 80 percent sugar and satisfied those who tried it.

Combining the words gelatin and jelly, they named their dessert “Jell-O.” Unfortunately, they lacked marketing and business savvy and eventually sold everything to a neighbor, Frank Woodward, for $450. His big breakout idea was to place ads for Jell-O in the popular magazine “Ladies Home Journal.” Sales skyrocketed and Jell-O became the most popular dessert in the country.

Jell-O products, whether sold in powdered form in boxes or packaged premade, take up a large majority of space in the dessert aisles of supermarkets. Competitors may complain about not enough shelf space, but shopkeepers know, “There’s Always Room for Jell-O.”


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