Industrialist, Inventor, and Philanthropist
Peter Cooper c. 1857
In 1845, industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper obtained the first patent for a gelatin dessert, but. . . . never promoted the product! The famous inventor’s innovative mechanical aptitude lead him to start several businesses: a furniture factory, glue-making factory, mining company and grocery business. His most famous accomplishment was the developing the “Tom Thumb” prototype steam engine, the first steam locomotive. Cooper began building it in 1828 at his iron works in Baltimore. The first model to prove the potential of steam-powered rail transport, it helped to accelerate the spread of railroads throughout the country. He was an industrious entrepreneur with many inventions to his credit: the rotary steam engine, a musical cradle, methods for making salt and glue, and a number of other mining and manufacturing processes.
The Tom Thumb Steam Engine Patent Drawing
In 1845, Cooper obtained a U.S. patent for the manufacture of gelatin. Gelatin itself was discovered much earlier, mentioned and referenced by a French researcher in the 17th century who created it as a by-product of boiling animal bones. The gelatinous substance that separates from the bones is pure protein, and has thousands of uses in the food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and photography industries to this day. Cooper patented its manufacture, he but did little to commercialize it, mostly packaging it for sales to cooks, but there was little interest.
Cooper died in New York on April 4, 1883, at 92. His legacy continued throughout his life. In the 1850s he was president of the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company and the North American Telegraph Company. He was involved in the 1858 project that resulted in installing the first trans-Atlantic cable telegraph. In 1876 he was the Greenback Party's candidate for president. In 1859, Cooper established New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which provided free education to adults in art and technology. The institute still operates today, granting scholarships to students with talent in fields such as engineering and architecture.
Peter Cooper sold the patent to Pearle B. Wait, a construction worker in LeRoy, New York, who dabbled in patent medicines and cough syrup, in 1895. Pearl Wait turned the gelatin food into a prepackaged commercial product. Wait’s wife, May Davis Wait, gave the dessert the cute name of "Jell-O." The product's sales were rather abysmal. The rights to Jell-O were sold in 1897 for US$ 450 to Frank Woodward, a school dropout.
Orator Francis 'Frank' Woodward bought all rights to Jell-O in 1897 from his neighbors, the Waits, and by 1900 began advertising it heavily. Woodward was already in the food business. His line of products included Grain-O, a roasted cereal beverage used as a coffee substitute. In 1900, Woodward’s corporation, the Genesee Pure Food Company, launched a wide-scale newspaper advertising campaign for Jell-O. In 1902, a Jell-O ad appeared in a national magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal, with the product touted as “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” Jell-O and Jell-O Ice Cream Powder were promoted through demonstrations of the product in stores and the give-away of recipe books.
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. Before the sale was consummated, Woodward's advertising gamble paid off. By 1906, sales reached $1 million. Jell-O popularity rose steadily through sending out dapper looking salesmen to demonstrate Jell-O and distributing 15 million copies of a Jell-O recipe book containing celebrity favorites. His Genesee Pure Food Company was renamed Jell-O Company in 1923.
From early on, Jell-O's marketers were masters at promotion. They created recipe booklets and offered promotional items such as molded dishes to persuade housewives to use the new product, even handing out jello molds to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. In 1903, Jell-O representatives promoted the product using a fictionalized character called "the Jell-O Girl". The character was refashioned in 1908 by Rose O'Neill (18741944), creator of the Kewpie doll. Through the 1920s, O'Neill's Kewpie dolls appeared in many advertisements for Jell-O. Artists like Norman Rockwell (18941978 and Maxfield Parrish (18701966) contributed illustrations to promote the brand. L. Frank Baum (18561919), author of The Wizard of Oz published an edition of his Oz books as a tie-in with Jell-O. In later years, the product was promoted on radio.
1897 Strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon are Jell-o's first flavors.
1904 Chocolate and cherry introduced.
1907 Peach joins the line-up.
1927 Chocolate Jell-O is discontinued.
1930 Lime Jell-O debuts. Indeed, Peter Cooper’s 1845 patent application specified lemon, or lime as an alternative, as the fruit flavoring, but it was 80 years later before it was introduced.
1934 Chocolate flavor was first marketed to consumers as Walter Baker's Dessert, then in 1936 was renamed JELL-O® Chocolate Pudding.
1936 Chocolate flavor was renamed JELL-O® Chocolate Pudding.
1942 Cola Jell-O is introduced.
1944 Cola Jell-O is discontinued.
1948 JELL-O® introduces Tapioca pudding in three flavors: vanilla, chocolate and orange-coconut, and JELL-O® Rice pudding.
1950 JELL-O® Apple gelatin makes its debut, followed later by grape, black cherry and black raspberry flavors.
1953 JELL-O® Instant Pudding chocolate, vanilla and butterscotch flavors were joined by coconut cream and strawberry. Promoted as "Busy Day Desserts," they stressed that it's never too late for real homemade desserts.
2001 There are 18 flavors: apricot, berry blue, black cherry, cherry, cranberry, cranberry-raspberry, grape, pineapple, lemon lime, mixed fruit, orange, peach, raspberry, strawberry, strawberry-banana, strawberry-kiwi and wild strawberry.
Colors and Flavors of Jell-O circa 2006
Jell-O developed an impressive stable of popular Radio Show and Television Show sponsorships, both showing their understanding of their target audience as well as developing a continuing demand for their products:
Early radio airtime was controlled by the sponsor, and Jack Benny made a point of incorporating his sponsors into the body of the show. Sponsors were often the butt of jokes, in one instance causing Canada Dry Ginger Ale to abandon sponsorship of the show. His sponsors included Canada Dry Ginger Ale from 1932 to 1933, Chevrolet from 1933 to 1934, General Tire in 1934, Jell-O from 1934 to 1942 (Benny and Ad Agency Young & Rubicam are credited for making "Jello" a household name), Grape Nuts from 1942 to 1944, and Lucky Strike from 1944 to 1955. The Jack Benny Show featured sketch "situations" from the fictional Benny's life (Jack hosting a party, Jack and Mary going Christmas shopping, etc.), with Phil Harris and Dennis Day providing musical interludes. Originally broadcast from New York, the show moved to Los Angeles in 1936, and its new Hollywood locale allowed frequent guest appearances by Benny's celebrity friends, including Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby and many others. Orson Welles guest hosted several episodes when Benny was on U.S.O. stints. Ronald Colman and his wife Benita appeared frequently in the 1940s as Benny's neighbors.
Benny's Comic Strip in Jell-O Ads circa 1938