On the Rise and Fall of America’s Most Famous Dessert
Allie Rowbottom and a Brief History of Jell-O
It was through luck and marriage that my family came into Jell-O money.
Midge’s Aunt Edith married Orator Woodward’s son Ernest in 1903, the year before Jell-O sales spiked and sent the Jell-O girl’s image and the product she hawked into every home in America. To keep up with sales, the Woodwards expanded the factory on North Street in LeRoy, NY, and Jell-O advertisements were supplemented with a series of recipe booklets featuring classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales rewritten to incorporate the dainty dessert.
Branding became an exercise in fable fabrication and real world building. In these new narratives, Mary Mary Quite Contrary grows silver bells and cockle shells and rows of sweet Jell-O, and Rip Van Winkle doesn’t sleep for ages in the Catskill Mountains but rather eats bowls and bowls of Jell-O administered by a group of gnomes. These books evolved into a series of travelogues featuring the Jell-O girl touring the world with her parrot, Polly, who perches on her outstretched hand or rounded shoulder. The Jell-O girl sees Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and California. She rides a mule to the belly of Yosemite, Polly on the horn of her saddle. She poses in a snow-suit on the Alaskan tundra and dons native garb in Holland, Hawaii, and Russia, always having the Most Famous adventures. A similar booklet, Desserts of the World, pushes American fabulism further, bemoaning the fate of foreign housewives, called upon to serve a dessert at a moment’s notice, who, know[ing] nothing about Jell-O, fail miserably. They didn’t know! How could they?
Advertisements reflected not only nationalistic pride but also an awareness of the country’s shifting socioeconomic landscape. And the country was shifting, quickly now. As maids and nannies and cooks abandoned their positions in the kitchens of the middle class to work the assembly lines of factories like Jell-O, the responsibilities of American housewives grew.
Ernest Woodward had been well aware of this shift. He’d engineered it, setting up an assembly line at the Jell-O factory in LeRoy, paying workers the best wage in town, plucking them like strawberries, raspberries, oranges, and lemons from their previous jobs in the kitchens of the American middle class and setting them down in rows of sweet Jell-O. These colorful rows were a grand place for the people of LeRoy, the best option available for hardworking individuals looking to support their families. One could almost hear the money whirring into existence, as if each box that passed inspection, each packet of powder sealed safely shut, was a stand-in for a thick roll of fragrant green paper. This was the American dream! Conveyor belts of cash! A steady stream of employment bringing prosperity to all, regardless of their background.
This steadiness in particular was important to LeRoy residents. By the time Orator bought Jell-O, in 1899, the town had already undergone the gain and traumatic loss of its first and only university, which just happened to be the country’s first university for women. Founded by a pair of sisters in 1837, and situated on East Main Street, Ingham University enrolled 117 women in its first summer and graduated thousands before its closure, in 1892. Just fifty-five years after Ingham was founded, financial hardship forced the university to shutter its doors. The furniture and classroom supplies were sold at auction. The buildings were reduced to rubble. From the bricks of the razed dormitories came a new bridge on Main Street. From the stone of the prodigious art conservatory, the Woodward Library was built, with Jell-O money.
The disappearance of “the help” from the homes of the American middle class saw many women entering the kitchen alone for the first time. What to do? The recipes their mothers had handed down were antiquated now, incompatible with modern food technology, which privileged artificiality and imitation. A whole chicken, plucked and washed, was unclean. Potatoes boiled with the skin still on? Dirty.
Tentatively they phoned their local grocer, unsure of what to order. How much sugar did they need each month? How much butter and flour? Timidly they crept to the cupboard to see what they could make. It all seemed so complicated, so many ingredients needed for even the simplest recipe. But wait! What’s this? A perfect cardboard box, red lettered and unimposing. So easy even a child can do it.
So easy even a barefooted black boy can do it. In a 1922 advertisement he stands, potbelly protruding, white teeth gleaming, on the threshold of a freshly painted porch, fluorescent white beneath his feet, offering a simple orange mold to a doughy and delighted Southern mistress. Oh my! she pantomimes, hands up in excitement. Mammy sent dis ovah, says the boy, the caption beneath him proclaiming that Jell-O was not only delicious enough to meet the standards of The Big House but also appealing enough to turn the sinful of any color away from his neighbor’s melon patch.
“A similar booklet, Desserts of the World, pushes American fabulism further, bemoaning the fate of foreign housewives, called upon to serve a dessert at a moment’s notice, who, know[ing] nothing about Jell-O, fail miserably.“
Jell-O, the great equalizer. It molded itself easily to any social class. Except, perhaps, a class that might reject campaigns built on racism, nationalism, and sexism. But in early-twentieth-century America, few consumers took up these kinds of issues. Besides, advertisements assured, Jell-O was equally at home in mansions and tract houses. The butler serves and the housewife too! All the recipes you’d ever need to class up your mold, available in these darling Jell-O and the Kewpies booklets, now in French, German, Swedish, and Yiddish. Bottom line, the Jell-O Company was eager to recruit new consumers.
This was why, in the early 1900s, Jell-O commissioned America’s favorite artist, Norman Rockwell, to illustrate a series of cookbooks and advertisements. One of his first illustrations graces the cover of a Yiddish recipe book, the image of a prim, white-haired grandmother pouring boiling water into a bowl of Jell-O powder, bordered by Hebrew script. The Jell-O girl herself was next on Rockwell’s list. But the artist, accustomed to painting boys, was technically challenged by her little-girl body (no bosom to speak of). He wound up painting her wearing a floor-length apron. He erased the lines of her, my mother, an artist obsessed with painting Rubenesque women, would have said.
This was early in Rockwell’s career. He had just started painting covers for the Saturday Evening Post, most of which concerned themselves with kitschy renderings of the softer side of World War I, for which he’d been an official military artist. Men’s bodies abounded; they were Rockwell’s bread and butter. He was the patron saint of soldiers returning home to women and warm houses, the hearth, America and its Most Famous Dessert! Maybe this is what made Rockwell such a flop with serious critics, such a success with everyday Americans. Even today, Rockwell’s work is considered light! and wholesome!, a throwback, like Jell-O itself, to a simpler time, one we search for wistfully on the internet, scrolling through shrines to nostalgia and decades long past.
The sentimentality of Rockwell’s work limited the range of activities available to his female subjects. These women were not Ingham University graduates, nor were they artists themselves; these were women who dreamed only of prom dates and Jell-O molds, white weddings and motherhood. These were the women the Jell-O Company wanted to sell to. So, as the company had with the Jell-O girl, as it would for years to come, it commissioned Rockwell to mold the ideal Jell-O consumer from a list of prescribed attributes American women had learned to revere.
Teaching women, it turns out, was a tenet of Jell-O’s marketing. Door-to-door salesmen taught housewives what to do with America’s Most Famous Dessert. Advertisements carefully explained the preparation process: Dissolve one packet into one pint of boiling water. Pour into mold and set in a cool place to harden. Later advertisements featured specific recipes or suggested consumers send away for the rhyming booklets full of them. How sweet and cunning these booklets were, teaching women all over America how to make the perfect Christmas fruit mold, Cherry Cheese Charmer, cranberry squares; teaching women how to mold their Jell-O, so pliable, so good; teaching them how to mold themselves to match it, pliable and good.
Almost as soon as Jell-O arrived on the market, consumers came up with new ways to use it. Jell-O as a salad ingredient, although never before considered, would forever change the face of American veggie consumption. One of the first published gelatin salad recipes, Perfection Salad—a simple mix of coleslaw suspended in an orb of lemon gelatin—debuted in 1905 when its creator, Mrs. John E. Cooke, entered it in a recipe contest sponsored by Knox gelatin. It was a sight to behold, this Perfection Salad. It was self-contained and clean. It sparkled lemon gold when the light hit it just right.
It wasn’t long before Cooke’s recipe inspired a bevy of Jell-O salads. They filled cookbooks, replacing plain old lettuce almost entirely. They catapulted lemon Jell-O from the fourth to the second bestselling flavor.
Jell-O salads, it turned out, were the perfect place to hide leftovers and stretch the contents of a meager cupboard. And they were cheap. All of which drew the attention of Postum. With Orator and his wife dead and gone, Ernest and Edith decided to sell. The resulting deal, an exchange of Jell-O stock worth $67 million, launched the Woodwards into superwealth.
“Jell-O, the great equalizer. It molded itself easily to any social class. Except, perhaps, a class that might reject campaigns built on racism, nationalism, and sexism.”
Postum changed little about Jell-O’s production, and perhaps because of this, the Woodwards, and the town of LeRoy, remained synonymous with the brand. The factory still churned out boxes and boxes—even more after the sale. As Postum went about acquiring a roster of other convenience-food products—which eventually prompted the company to change its name to General Foods—Jell-O’s popularity grew, as did its affordability. In 1926, Jell-O went from ten cents per box to a special three-for-twenty-five-cent deal.
Initially the move was profitable, but it also ushered in a flock of store-brand competitors. This was the Depression era. Every cent counted, and Jell-O sales declined radically in the early 1930s. The solution was a radio program, The Cooking School of the Air, which aired midday on NBC’s Red Network. Each fifteen-minute lesson was presided over by Mrs. Frances Lee Barton, a professional home economist employed by General Foods to walk listeners through the construction of Jell-O molds. The trusty old Perfection Salad was featured, as were other, newer concoctions, such as the Jell-O cheese loaf (lemon Jell-O mixed with a spreadable cheese of your choosing and molded into an oblong shape) and the Under the Sea Salad, a mix of canned pears and cream cheese, molded to form a thick base and then topped in lime, the result a green-and-white tower flecked with hints of the fruit stuck inside.
As grotesque as Barton’s recipes seem today, at the time nary an eyebrow was lifted. Her Depression-era audience was hungry for something different, something new, something imitation and now in six delicious flavors. Clearly, the old ways weren’t working. Clearly something had failed. The solution was a new way of eating. New methods of producing and consuming food: scientifically, conveniently, and according to instruction.
Even with so much innovation and cultural interest, the onslaught of cheaper brands, combined with economic depression, kept Jell-O sales sluggish. Electric refrigeration also had something to do with Jell-O’s popularity or lack thereof, briefly confining the dessert to a signifier of those who owned refrigerators and those who did not. Although Jell-O could be made in the sink, root cellar, or icebox, those with the most consistent molds obviously didn’t have to rely on such antiquated cooling techniques.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s that refrigerators with separate deep-freeze units—which cut Jell-O prep time in half—went into mass production, and I imagine Midge waiting for weeks after returning to LeRoy for hers to arrive. In the meantime there was the old icebox, the same unit she remembered from her girlhood, kept out in the garage. Each day she waited for her new unit was another day Elfrida greeted the iceman, fitting the plate of frozen water into the cool locker full of food. Even after the fancy white refrigerator arrived, transforming Midge’s kitchen into a modern wonder fit to congeal all the Jell-O she could eat, the icebox stayed in the garage, stocked with beer for Bob. He’d fork a cool bottle between his fingers on his way inside and carry it up to the shower, emerging twenty minutes later pine scented and ready for cocktail hour, a Johnny Mathis record on the player, macadamia nuts in little crystal dishes, fresh ice at the bar, and bourbon to be poured.
From Jell-O Girls: A Family History. Used with permission of Little, Brown, and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Allie Rowbottom.