J-E-L-L-O – Day 122


Day 122 – July 31, 2003 – Thursday

Jamestown, New York is where Jell-O was invented. I took the tour at the Jell-O Museum. The museum is small and the tour is short, but it was very interesting to learn more about what Jell-O calls “America’s favorite dessert.”

In 1845, the industrialist, inventor, and philanthropist Peter Cooper (of Tom Thumb engine and Cooper Union fame), obtained the first patent for a gelatin dessert. Although he packaged his gelatin in neat little boxes with directions for use, Cooper did very little with it. Home cooks still relied on sheets of prepared gelatin, which had to be clarified by boiling with egg whites and shells and dripped through a jelly bag before they could be turned into shimmering molds. This was a time-consuming process.

In 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in LeRoy, New York, was producing a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. He experimented with gelatin and came up with a fruit flavored dessert which his wife, May, named Jell-O. Wait tried to market his product but he lacked the capital and the experience. In 1899, he sold his formula to Orator Frank Woodward for the sum of $450.

Woodward moved with his family to LeRoy in 1860. He had already realized some success in manufacturing and selling; his company was one of the best known manufacturers of proprietary medicines. He developed a number of products. In 1896, Woodward bought the patent for and placed on the market Grain-O, a roasted cereal coffee “for those who can’t drink tea and coffee.” It was this highly successful coffee substitute that made enough money to carry Jell-O along until the new dessert replaced Grain-O as a money maker.

On September 9, 1899, he purchased the name and the business of Jell-O from Mr. Wait. Sales were initially slow. Then in 1904, William E. Humelbaugh and Frank LaBounty began the distribution of recipes and samples. Salesmen would take a box of Jell-O and a Jell-O Recipe Book and put them at the back door of homes in a town. They would then go in and sell local stores on carrying the product that they could assure the retailer the local housewives would be seeking. The salesforce also attended every possible local party, fair, church social, and picnic where the company supplied each event with free Jell-O and demonstrated how easy it was to make the dessert. Housewives and families liked Jell-O, and the free giveaways were extremely successful. Sales grew at a fast pace. Jell-O developed very successful advertising campaigns featuring the art of artists such as Normal Rockwell. Jack Benny was the first celebrity spokesperson, followed by Bill Cosby.

Jell-O changed from a hand-packaged business to a highly mechanized factory, and Jell-O become one of LeRoy’s most important businesses. On December 31, 1925, the Jell-O Company, Inc. was sold to the Postum Cereal Company, Inc. for $67 million and was later merged into General Foods Corporation. The LeRoy plant was closed in 1964. Today, Jell-O is manufactured by Kraft / General Foods in Dover Delaware. The Jell-O brand is found on over 158 products encompassing everything from gelatin and puddings, ready-to-eat snacks, and no-bake desserts. The Jell-O brand is recognized by 95% of Americans and is used regularly in 66% of our homes. 300 million boxes of Jell-O are sold in the US each year.

Mr. Woodward died, and his sons ran the business before it was sold. I didn’t get the whole story, but it seems the children and his wife were all more than a little wacky. His wife had their huge mansion in LeRoy demolished after her death as she didn’t want anyone else to be able to live there.

I didn’t realize that Jell-O was an animal derivative. Gelatin is made up of a protein called collagen that’s found in cow and pig hides, hooves, bones, and connective tissue. To make Jell-O, this stuff is boiled down, chemicals are added, and then the collagen is extracted. Gelatin, water, artificial sweetener, and food coloring are the primary ingredients in Jell-O.

Salt Lake City is the #1 market for Jell-O. On a per-capita basis, the top markets for Jell-O are Salt Lake City, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis. The first four flavors were orange, lemon, strawberry, and raspberry. Chocolate and cherry were added in 1904. Chocolate was discontinued in 1927. Lime wasn’t introduced until 1930. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film “The Ten Commandments,” Jell-O was used to create the effect of keeping the Red Sea parted as the Israelites fled Egypt. And in “The Wizard of Oz,” the horse that changed colors was actually six horses sponged down with Jell-O.

As you may have guessed from all the detail above, today was a slow “news day.” After seeing the Jell-O sights, I drove across the rest of the state of New York — through the Adirondack Mountains — and into Vermont.

New York is a pretty state. I’d only seen New York City, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls previously, and the rest of the state is much prettier than I expected.

There wasn’t much to see on today’s drive, so there was not a lot to write about. I did see the last of the Great Lakes — Lake Ontario. I enjoyed excellent Coconut Cream Pie at Greg’ry’s Bakery & Cafe in Bergen, and I had great hot dogs at The Patio in Utica (though their chili is a lot different than what we know to be chili in Texas). New York has some interesting town names; today I was in Mexico, Texas, Ohio, Sweden, Rome, Florence, and several other such places. Vermont is state #38.

I met some nice folks today — Jamie and Rita at the Jell-O Museum; Chad, Mike, and Diane in Bergen; Melanie at a gas station; Sue Ann at The Patio; and Levi, Ann, Robin, and Brian at the hotel in Burlington, Vermont.

The lesson for the day is to be careful when selling your inventions. I imagine I would have had trouble dealing with it if I sold an invention for $450 and it ended up being a $300 million a year business and a brand name known by 95% of the people in America. I’d be proud but sick.

The Daily Journal of Round America:

Each day, we collect our thoughts on a web page just like this. We drop in some of the photos from the day. Our goal with the Daily Journal is to write about the towns we visit, the sights we see, the people we meet, and the pie we eat. We write about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going, but we also make observations about what we’ve seen and done as well as about life in general.

You can follow our travels from the Daily Journal section of this web site. Other pages of interest include the running report of “vital statistics” on the Trip Scorecard, our nominations for the Best & Worst of the trip, as well as a rating of the pie we eat. If you’d like to see information for a specific state or town, click here, and then click on the state of interest and the full itinerary is shown.


More Information on the Sights Visited Today:
Jell-O Museum