Back when the future was bright, and every night was Family Night, it was the gleaming Technicolor finale of suburban suppers. No Fourth of July cookout was complete without a chartreuse Jell-O salad, popped from a Tupperware mold. Norman Rockwell did magazine ads for it. Oh, you can take your apple pie; nothing says “America” like Jell-O. Heck, they served it to immigrants at Ellis Island, by way of orientation!
Wobbly desserts have actually been around for ages. Henry VIII treated his knights to gilded leach, a rose-flavored jelly thickened with isinglass, the ground-up air bladder of fish, and topped with gold leaf. There were hartshorn flummeries—boiled antler shavings molded into little crescent moons and cockleshells. Shivering towers of gelatin, spiked with liqueurs, glorified rich Victorian tables. But these fancy dishes took small armies of kitchen staff to make.
What Jell-O did was democratize the jelly, by shifting the labor to the factory. In 1895 a cough-syrup maker in Le Roy, New York, named Pearl B. Waite bought the patent for a “portable gelatin” powder, added some of his sugary flavorings, and named it Jell-O. The notion of powdered food, sadly, was ahead of its time; in 1899 he sold out for $450 to Orator Woodward, a patent-medicine huckster from Le Roy who’d had some success with a coffee substitute called Grain-O. (The -O ending was a sort of 19th-century meme.) Woodward channeled his sales razzle-dazzle into a brilliant marketing campaign—the first of many—making Jell-O synonymous with modern living in the new century. His first ad in Ladies’ Home Journal touted Jell-O as “America’s most famous dessert,” which it promptly became. Here’s what they put in those little boxes:
Lee Simmons (@actual_self) is an editor at WIRED.