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WOBBLY DESSERT HAS STOOD UP WELL

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In March 1897, a young carpenter trying to make his fortune in patent medicines mixed fruit flavoring into gelatin and began selling the sweet concoction door-to-door. His wife christened the product Jell-O.

Thus was born 20th-century America's most ubiquitous dessert, a colorful standby at church potlucks, school cafeterias and summer camps as far back as anyone can recall.Within a decade, Jell-O was a million-dollar business, but not for its inventor. Pearle Bixby Wait was still building houses and hoping to strike it rich with a homemade laxative, cough syrup or foot remedy.

Those initial door-to-door sales had never picked up, so Wait had sold the Jell-O trademark in 1899 to the wealthiest man in town for $450. When he died in 1915 at age 44, his widow had to take in sewing jobs and boarders to feed the family.

"I often say to our kids, `Just think, we could be rich and unhappy and living in the Bahamas!"' exclaims his grand-daughter, Martha Lapp Tabone, 55, an elementary school teacher in this town of 8,500 in rural western New York.

"It would have been nice . . . " she added, any hint of wistfulness dispelled by a burst of laughter.

Jell-O left here in 1964, taking along many of its 330 employees to a new home in Dover, Del., and leaving a bitter aftertaste that lingered for years.

Now its 100th birthday has sprung hopes of a modest payback.

Latter-day owner Kraft Foods, which boasts a billion dollars in annual Jell-O sales, recently donated $50,000 to convert an unoccupied, century-old stone build-ing behind the Le Roy Historical Society into a Jell-O museum.

It will highlight Jell-O's versatility, artful marketing and enduring popularity - 13 boxes of "America's Most Famous Dessert" are sold every second in the United States.

Wait's simple idea of adding raspberry, strawberry, lemon and orange flavors to gelatin - animal tissue reduced to a fibrous protein called collagen - wasn't an instant hit for the second owner, Orator Woodward.

A few months after the affluent entrepreneur began churning out Wait's formula at his Genesee Pure Foods factory, he tried to hock the trademark to his plant supervisor for $35.

That offer was rejected, so Woodward tried a marketing gimmick still in use today: He gave away thousands of Jell-O molds and recipes at fairs, church socials and picnics.

Bowls of Jell-O were handed out to immigrants passing through Ellis Island and a cute, 4-year-old Jell-O Girl was featured in magazine ads.

Although it has endured more than its share of denigration - one writer labeled it "that inland jellyfish of many hues" - Jell-O's staying power seems to hinge greatly on its ability to find new forms, in salads, yogurts, snacks and alcoholic drinks.

The Jell-O exhibit will tour nationwide after Labor Day, then settle next year in Le Roy, 25 miles southwest of Rochester. Among its attractions: an interactive kitchen for youngsters, playbacks of Jack Benny's Jell-O commercials in the 1930s, EEG printouts of brain waves and their resemblance to electrical waves produced by Jell-O when wiggled.

This could land Le Roy on the tourist trail, said Lynne Belluscio, the historical society's director. "It's a popular product that people have a lot of fond memories about," Belluscio said. "In the late 1800s, early 1900s, there was a lot of American ingenuity taking place in small towns like this one, much of it unknown or forgotten."

Indeed, Jello isn't Le Roy's only claim to fame: the first stringless string bean was developed here in 1887.