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November 26, 2002

A public radio commentary

On your holiday table there is product of one of the greatest American engineers of all time. In 1845, Peter Cooper invented Jell-O.

Cooper had a hand in most of the amazing achievements of the late 19th century. He designed the first American locomotive, and helped lay telegraph cables under the Atlantic ocean. He also owned a glue factory, which led to Jell-O.

Glue, at the time, was made by rendering animals. Rendering means, literately, to melt down an animal. There are always rumors that Jell-O is hooves or other disgusting parts of an animal. In a way it is.

Jell-O is made from a protein called collagen. In mammals, like us, it makes up about a third of our bodies, and makes our skin, bones, and tendons strong and elastic. The collagen in Jell-O comes from cows and pigs, but it goes through so many steps of processing that the FDA doesn't consider it a meat product; in fact, Jell-O is the only pork product certified Kosher.

Cooper figured out how to render animal collagen so that it turned into the flavorless, wiggly clear substance we now call Jell-O. He advertised it as "a transparent substance containing all the ingredients fitting it for table use ...." But few tables took up Cooper's invention.

It resurfaced a half century later when a man with the odd name Pearl B. Wait took it up. Pearl Wait and his wife made two great innovations in Jell-O. First, they added flavors - strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon.

And second, his wife added the "O" to Jell-O, basing it on a product their neighbor sold, a coffee-substitute called Grain-O. The "O" ending was a fad at the time, much like "-o-rama" was in the 1950s.

Wait failed, though, like Peter Cooper in getting any interest in his Jell-O. So, he sold it to their neighbor who made "grain-O."

This neighbor, a Mr. Woodward, placed ads featuring actress and opera singers, suggesting that Jell-O was a dessert of the elite. He hired Norman Rockwell to illustrate the ads. And he sent fleets of stylishly dressed salesman out in handsome, horse-drawn carriages. They demonstrated Jell-O at fairs, picnics, teas, weddings, and church socials. By 1902 Woodward was a millionaire.

Jell-O went through a golden age in the 1950s, then sales declined in the 60s and 70s. Lately, though, it has come back with a vengeance. Jigglers - a high-density Jell-O finger food - is popular with preschoolers, and a vodka-laced version appeals to the young adult party set.

I think, though, there is a fundamental reason that Jell-O will always be with us. It's this: Jell-O is like us. I've learned that if you hook up an EEG Machine to lime-flavored Jell-O, the Jell-O shows a pattern matching a healthy adult's brain waves.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises