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Monday Morsels: JELL-O

Image:'Reconsidered Materials-01'

It dissolves quickly in water, can be molded into various shapes, and a single serving (of the original variety) has 0 grams of fat and only 80 calories.  It has been immortalized through poetry, used for comedic relief , and studied as pieces of art.  It is the wiggly, jiggly gelatin dessert that officially hit the market in 1897:  JELL-O.  You may have eaten a gross ton of the gelatinous dessert as a child, but do you know the interesting history behind this protein-based dessert goodness?

Gelatin is a colorless, tasteless, protein-based substance that acts as a thickening agent.  It dissolves quickly in heated water but congeals when cooled, allowing foodstuffs to set.  Gelatin can be found in ordinary food products such as molasses and marshmallows.  However, due to its unique textual and chemical properties gelatin can also be found in toothpaste, shampoo, and mascara.  Although the nutrition benefits of gelatin can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), the gelatin-craze really heated up during the Victorian Era (1837-1901) as “jelly moulds” became the signs of money and refinement.

Peter Cooper popularized gelatin in 1845 when he invented a powdered form of gelatin that only required adding hot water.  The traditional recipe for gelatin laboriously involved boiling down the bones and connective tissues of animals (typically pigs and cattle), clarifying the stock, reboiling the stock, and finally letting it settle.  Then, in 1897 , JELL-O was born thanks to cough syrup manufacturer Pearl B. Wait and his wife May (who gave the iconic dessert its name).  Building on the “portable gelatin” invention introduced by Cooper, Wait is credited with adding the famous flavoring varieties: strawberry, lemon, orange, and raspberry, thus making JELL-O a household name and a dessert of sophistication.

 The history of JELL-O doesn’t stop there–for more information on this, or to check out other awesome resources, feel free to stop by the library!!


Berzok, Linda Murray. “Gelatin.” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 103-105. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 8 Sep. 2011.

Derks, Scott.  Working Americans 1880-1999, Volume III: The Upper Class.  Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, Inc., 2001.

Kraft Brands.  “The History of the Wiggle.”  Kraft Brands.  Web. 8 Sep. 2011.



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