March 17, 1997


Staff Writer

It wiggles, it jiggles, and it's 100 years old.

There's probably some in your cupboard right now.

Jell-O gelatin, a favorite dessert for generations, is marking its centennial with events that include a museum exhibit, a limited edition flavor and a cookbook.

Jell-O is a registered trademark of Kraft Foods Inc., and more than 120 products are sold under the Jell-O brand name.


People develop an emotional attachment to Jell-O, says Janet Myers, manager of the Kraft Creative Kitchens in White Plains, N.Y.

"It denotes all those wonderful memories of childhood, of Mom making a special dessert," she says.

Myers, 44, says her mother often served the powdered gelatin as a quick and easy finish to a meal.

Because she grew up in a Jell-O household, she says, it's ironic that she works with the product as a career.

Employees at Kraft's two Creative Kitchens units test product performance and develop recipes.

Myers says recipes always have been important to Jell-O. Some of the first ones were for molded salads, which were served with traditional family dinners.

One of the most requested recipes is Poke Cake, in which a cake is baked and cooled. Holes are poked in the cake, and dissolved gelatin is poured on top.

The development of Jell-O Jigglers - concentrated gelatin finger food cut into squares or shapes with cookie cutters - took gelatin to a whole new level in the '80s, Myers says.

The result was a snack that children and parents could create together, she says.

Jell-O has stayed popular because it's a pleasing, soothing kind of food, says Don Trumble, director of food and nutrition services for Washington County Schools.

"It's fun," he says. "It wiggles, it's smooth, and the mouth feel is great."

He says Jell-O is served about twice a month in the county schools. Students like fruited jello better than plain fruit, he says.

Myers says Jell-O is naturally fat free and fits into a balanced, healthy diet.

Along with eating Jell-O, another childhood ritual is guessing the ingredients of the popular dessert.

Those rumors you heard on the playground about Jell-O containing ground-up horses' hooves aren't true, Myers says.

Gelatin is made from collagen, a protein which is derived from pork and beef skins during the manufacturing process, she says.

A humble beginning

Pearl B. Wait, a carpenter and cough medicine manufacturer from LeRoy, N.Y., whipped up a fruit-flavored gelatin in 1897. His wife, May Davis Wait, called the concoction Jell-O, and it was made in strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon flavors.

Pearl Wait tried to sell the product door to door for about two years, but he lacked the money and sales experience to market it properly.

He sold the business for $450 to his neighbor, Orator Francis Woodward. Sales in the first year were so low that one day the frustrated Woodward tried to sell the business for $35, an offer that was refused.

Woodward kept plugging along, and his creative sales and sampling strategies paid off. Sales reached $250,000 in 1902, the year Woodward launched his first advertising campaign.

Today, an average of 13 boxes of Jell-O gelatin are purchased every second in the United States.

Birthday activities

Events to mark Jell-O's birthday are causing a stir.

A limited edition flavor, Sparkling White Grape, will be sold from April through June. The product calls for the use of carbonated beverages such as club soda, seltzer water or ginger ale instead of cold water.

The town of LeRoy will feature the popular culture exhibit "There's Always Room for Jell-O" from June until Labor Day. The exhibit featuring product history and memorabilia will travel to museums all over the country, then will be installed permanently in LeRoy in 1998.

A cookbook called "Celebrating 100 Years of Jell-O" will be available this spring in bookstores and through magazine, newspaper and direct mail offers.

The Jell-O story doesn't end there.

The folks at Kraft always are looking to the future, Myers says.

"We think Jell-O will be as exciting in the next 100 years," she says.

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