Who knew that the origins of Jell-o date back to the 1600s? That small box of fruity powder has quite the history! Gelatin was first discovered in 1682, when a Denis Papin, a Frenchman, conducted experiments and research on the subject. It resulted in the discovery of a method of removing the glutinous material in animal bones by boiling. Gelatin has no taste, no odor, and, when combined with liquid, no color, but it is pure protein.
In 1845, industrialist, inventor, and philanthropist Peter Cooper, of Tom Thumb engine and Cooper Union fame, obtained the first patent for a gelatin dessert. He was the inventor of the famous locomotive “Tom Thumb” and patron of the arts and sciences. However, he never promoted the gelatin dessert.
In 1895, Pearl B. Wait, a cough syrup manufacturer from Le Roy, New York who dealt in patent medicines, bought the patent from Peter Cooper. Wait’s business in medicine was failing and he needed to make a change. Wait decided to transition from medicine to food because he reasoned that people only take medicine when sick, but they eat all the time. By adding fruit syrup to gelatin, Wait turned Cooper’s gelatin dessert into a pre-packaged commercial product. Wait’s wife, May David Wait, renamed the dessert “Jell-O.” However, the Waits were unsuccessful in selling the product.
Years later, Frank Woodward, a school dropout and entrepreneur by the age of 20, bought the rights to Jell-O for $450. Among the products Woodward marketed were several patent medicines, Raccoon Corn Plasters, and a roasted coffee substitute called Grain-O. Sales were still slow, so Woodward offered to sell the rights to Jell-O® to his plant superintendent for $35.
However, before the final sale, intensive advertising paid off. By 1900, a number of cooking experts discovered Jell-O and decided it was perfect for an elegant meal. That changed everything. Jell-O began to appear at banquets and fancy dinners. In 1902, O. F. Woodward launches the advertising campaign, “America’s most favorite Dessert” for JELL-O gelatin.
By 1906, sales reached $1 million. By sending out nattily dressed salesmen to demonstrate Jell-O and distributing 15 million copies of a Jell-O recipe book containing celebrity favorites, popularity rose. Woodward’s Genesee Pure Food Company was renamed Jell-O Company in 1923, and later merged with Postum Cereal to become the General Foods Corporation. Today, Jell-o is the largest selling prepared dessert and is known world-wide.