The History of Jell-O

Vintage advertisement for Jell-O by the Genesee Pure Food Company in 1903.
Jay Paull/Getty Images

Jell-O: It’s now as American as apple pie. Once a twice-failed processed food made from a mash-up of animal parts, it managed to become a hit dessert and the go-to food for generations of sick children. 

Who Invented Jell-O?

In 1845, New York industrialist Peter Cooper patented a method for the manufacture of gelatin, a tasteless, odorless gelling agent made of out animal by-products. Cooper’s product failed to catch on, but in 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter turned cough syrup manufacturer in LeRoy, a town in upstate New York was experimenting with gelatin and concocted a fruit-flavored dessert. His wife, May David Wait, dubbed it Jell-O. 

Woodward Buys Jell-O

Wait lacked the funding to market and distribute his new product. In 1899 he sold it to Frank Woodward, a school dropout who by the age of 20 had his own business, Genesee Pure Food Company. Woodward bought the rights to Jell-O for $450 from Wait.

Once again, sales lagged. Woodward, who sold a number of patent medicines, Raccoon Corn Plasters, and a roasted coffee substitute called Grain-O, grew impatient with the dessert. Sales were still slow, so Woodward offered to sell the rights to Jell-O® to his plant superintendent for $35.

However, before the final sale, Woodward’s intensive advertising efforts, which called for the distribution of recipes and samples and paid off. By 1906, sales reached $1 million. 

Making Jell-O a National Staple

The company doubled down on marketing. They sent out nattily dressed salesmen to demonstrate Jell-O. The also distributed 15 million copies of a Jell-O recipe book containing celebrity favorites and illustrations by beloved American artists, including Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell. The dessert’s popularity rose. Woodward’s Genesee Pure Food Company was renamed Jell-O Company in 1923. Two years later it later merged with Postum Cereal, and eventually, that company became the behemoth known as the General Foods Corporation, which is now called Kraft/General Foods.

The gelatinous aspect of the food made it a popular choice among mothers when their children were suffering from diarrhea. In fact, doctors still recommend serving Jell-O water—that is, unhardened Jello-O—to children suffering from loose stools. 

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Jell-O." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The History of Jell-O. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Jell-O." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).