“Jell-O, America’s favorite dessert.” As famously advertised in Ladies’ Home Journal and other women’s magazines as early as 1902, Jell-O was a household favorite in the United States for almost a century. Today, Jell-O is most widely known as a childhood dessert or an alcoholic concoction; however, there was a time when Jell-O was so popular and successful that it found its way into every course of a meal—even meat entrees. The idea of savory Jell-O might seem offensive to our modern palate, but its popularity during mid-20th century America reveals a lot about the society and household at the time. By studying Jell-O ads of this time frame (1900-1960), one can gain insights to not only consumer habits, but also larger social contexts in which the ad was situated in. These include but are not limited to: the birth of the middle class, the shifting gender roles in the household, and the rise of the processed-food industry.
I. A Brief Timeline
Before the expansion of industry and development of instant foods, everything had to be made from scratch. Breads, cakes—and of course, gelatin. Gelatin dates back to the 17th century and was traditionally made by boiling the bones and hooves of large animals for long hours, which was both a complicated and labor-intensive process. Thus, only the European upper-class were able to enjoy desserts made with gelatin. Maxfield Parrish draws on this association of royalty by featuring the King and Queen in his ad illustration, which reads: “Jell-O. The King and Queen might eat thereof and nobleman besides.” However, with the invention of new technology, now anyone could get their hands on gelatin and enjoy the tastes of luxury and wealth with just 10 cents. This all started in 1845, when Peter Cooper, (the same Cooper who founded the Cooper Union school in New York), made gelatin widely available by patenting it for manufacture in the U.S. (1) However, he did not commercialize it and it garnered little interest in the American public.
In 1897, Pearl Wait, a carpenter in LeRoy, created a gelatin-based cough syrup which his wife endearingly called Jell-O. Unfortunately, Wait did not have enough funds to market the product successfully and ended up selling the trademark to a fellow townsman, Francis Woodward. Woodward advertised it under his company Genesee Pure Foods Co. and launched the campaign “America’s most favorite Dessert.” This slogan first ran in The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1902, and in the same year product sales rose to $250,000. (2)
II. The Rise to Success
At the turn of the century, the advancement of technology brought along new consumer goods that service the kitchen and household—the biggest one being the refrigerator. This made huge changes to the way people ate, as foods could be kept fresh for much longer and the possibility of having left-overs meant less time had to be spent in the kitchen. Housewives began focusing on the idea of home economics and prioritized both time and money efficiency. Jell-O resonated perfectly with these ideals as it was fast, economical, and mess-free. In addition, preparing a Jell-O mold for dinner was seen as a sign of status as one had to own a fridge to be able to set Jell-O’s in. A 1920’s Jell-O ad illustrated by Norman Price appeals to the worries of housewives at the time:
For the first time in months the young housewife looks at the figures without scowling awfully, and she has Jell-O to thank for the pleasure she derives from inspecting them now.
As the First World War ended, the dynamics of the household changed as many women who had joined the effort continued to stay in employment. However, the value of family was still centered around the image of a woman cooking in the kitchen. Thus, Jell-O was able to target the middle class housewife who had no time to cook but high expectations to satisfy.
III. Highlights from the Golden Age
One of the biggest reasons behind Jell-O’s success was that it wasn’t marketed just as dessert, but as every course of the meal. Company-sponsored recipe books and magazine pages advertised a variety of ways in which Jell-O could be served to suit any occasion. An ad in a 1926 issue of Woman’s Home Companion even goes as far as promising an extravagant Christmas dinner through four simple Jell-O recipes. This, again, sells the idea of class and elegance that comes with decorative gelatin molds. Similarly, a page in a 1929 publication of McCall’s promotes the idea of Jell-O dishes “around the clock”. For lunch, a “Ham Loaf” meat entree is featured (see image below for recipe).
The popularity of these savory jelly dishes reflected the economic status of homes during the Great Depression. Similar to the idea of the meatloaf, Jell-O was used to stretch ingredients and make meat and salad dishes appear more. With the introduction of the lime flavor in the 30’s, Jell-O salads became hugely popular. They were even popular as a great way to get rid of your left-overs—just dump it in a jelly. Any crudeness at all was well-hidden by the decorative molds. As World War II began, these dishes remained a popular method to entertain guests without much effort or stress.
IV. Popular Imagery and Processed Foods
Jell-O built itself on the image of purity and the innocence of childhood. Rose O’Neill painted children and her Kewpie characters in illustrations for Jell-O, which not only to appealed to mothers, but also reinforced the idea that the product is pure and safe. This was a selling-point that Jell-O heavily advertised through their “brown safety bags.” Additionally, the image of the “Jell-O girl” was very well-known and she (based on Elizabeth King, daughter of illustrator who worked for Jell-O) became an icon that represented the brand. Despite being a heavily processed food, Jell-O was able to make a personal connection with its consumer audience through the use of familiar and safe imagery. This strategy, however, is not unique to Jell-O and can be seen in other industrial foods of the era such as Campbell’s soups.
Grace Drayton, known for her Campbell’s kids, drew cute little people to advertise for Campbell’s soups. By itself, the canned soup product is hardly appealing at all. However, with the addition of these lively characters and the patriotic ideas they stood for, consumers quickly formed a bond with the soup. One ad that ran in The Delineator in 1917 equated the consumption of Campbell’s soup to promoting the economy of the nation and serving the country. Another similar ad sells the image of happy children with “bounding health”. In the time of war and food rations, these ads were particularly effective. Through these characters, Drayton was able to humanize a product that would have otherwise been irrelevant and thus, undesired by the American public.
V. The Fall
The processed-food industry came about as a response to food shortage during the war; however, once the wars were over it had essentially nowhere to go. These foods, such as SPAM, condensed soups, canned vegetables, and etc. relied on advertising and government support to maintain their high demands. The variety of eccentric Jell-O dishes enjoyed popularity through the 50’s and 60’s, but started to decline as the FDA implemented new guidelines that promoted healthier eating lifestyles. One such act was the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act of 1966, which required that “all consumer products in interstate commerce to be honestly and informatively labeled, with FDA enforcing provisions on foods.” (3) Although Jell-O salads and meatloaves might have fallen out of favor, the product remained popular as a dessert through Bill Cosby and TV advertising.
This post is part of a series published by students in D. B. Dowd’s Spring 2017 course Special Topics in Visual Culture: The Illustrated Periodical.