Jell-O collectibles have wiggled their way into American folklore

CULINARY PEOPLE

June 24, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Nearly everyone has in their past a towering cathedral of Jell-O, populated by millions of mini-marshmallows and canned fruit chunks. Or they can remember the bilious green lime and cottage cheese Jell-O mold that made an annual appearance at the church social, perhaps to be consumed as penance. At the very least, they recall the bowl of jiggly cherry Jell-O cubes -- prepared by mom to soothe a sore throat -- and their slippery descent to the tummy.

Gelatin in general, and Jell-O in particular, is perhaps the nation's most popular and versatile novelty foodstuff. Shimmering and shaking, wiggling and jiggling, Jell-O, at every course, has "just sort of immersed itself in the American soul. It's part of the country's culinary folklore," says Judith Gardner-Flint.

An enthusiastic collector of Jell-O promotional cookbooks and other printed matter, Ms. Gardner-Flint has mounted a selection of her prize finds in a low-key but fascinating show at Evergreen House, the museum and former home of John Work Garrett, where she is the Garrett librarian.

Ms. Gardner-Flint's show covers the history of Jell-O promotions from the turn of the century until 1930. Through it, we get an idea of how the carefully marketed product infiltrated every nook and cranny of middle class domestic life as a nutritional staple that could bring health and harmony to all households. Though Jell-O ephemera is very pretty to look at, it "speaks to me more of social history than art," Ms. Gardner-Flint says.

Early advertising whizzes masterminded an entire universe that revolved around the shaky byproduct of cow hoofs. Jell-O mythology, Jell-O "rules" for preparation, and Jell-O fairy tales, co-opted from original classics, helped to build an empire that was anything but shaky.

The ubiquitous Jell-O Girl, a towheaded invention who traveled around the world, was a very visible Jell-O trademark. Jell-O boxes contained inserts that featured the Jell-O Girl in native garb as well as appropriately exotic recipes. In another series of 12 inserts, a Jell-O Girl frolicked through every month of the year, an innocent calendar girl bearing seasonally correct Jell-O recipes.

Handsomely illustrated promotional cookbooks, containing Jell-O still lifes and centerfolds, told cautionary tales of housewives whose every crisis was solved by Jell-O. In the "Bride and her Task," for example, a young woman pulls off the first of many simple, gelatinous deceptions: "Though the honeymoon's not yet over and everything she does is still perfect, the young housewife who is no cook has gone through a period of awful trepidation while preparing that first dessert. She doesn't know, as all expert housewives do, that she couldn't go wrong with Jell-O. And now, proudly successful, she holds up to his delighted gaze the beautiful dish of strawberry Jell-O, which she has prepared with her own hands."

In another series of inserts, Jell-O copywriters borrowed and revised classic fairy tales, folklore and fantasy literature to suit their needs. One insert retells the tale of shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe who discovers a trove of Jell-O washed ashore. "Put on the kettle for boiling water and let it stiffen. Hurry up, Friday, we can have dessert together," Mr. Crusoe cries delightedly.

The Evergreen show includes Jell-O illustrations by artists Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell and Rose O'Neill, creator of the famous Kewpie characters. Advertising from rival gelatin manufacturer Knox is also represented in the show.

Jell-O was invented in 1897, when an enterprising businessman named Frank Woodward first packaged gelatin, flavoring, food color and sugar in one neat packet. His creation -- one of our first "fast foods" Ms. Gardner-Flint notes -- soon hit the $1 million mark in annual sales for the Genessee Pure Food Co., based in LeRoy, N.Y. In 1923, the company changed its name to the Jell-O Company Inc. Two years later, the Jell-O company was sold to the Postum Cereal Co., later to become General Foods. In 1989, General Foods merged with Kraft Inc. and today, Jell-O is a product of Kraft General Foods.

Today, as always, Jell-O is pitched to homemakers as a fun and healthful food. Long ago, it was touted by Jack Benny; now Bill Cosby pushes Jell-O pudding. The number of flavors has grown from the original handful to 19 sugar-based flavors and 10 sugar-free flavors, including the latest, "berry blue" Jell-O. And a marketing staff is continuously insinuating Jell-O into the American way of life with food novelties such as "jigglers," (wobbly Jell-O letters) and an edible aquarium (Make berry blue Jell-O; add gummy fish), and cute stories to go with them.

Since she began collecting Jell-O cookbooks about 12 years ago, Ms. Gardner-Flint says she has "spent many hours sitting on the floor of a dusty book shop" looking for the Jell-O cooking booklets that were once distributed door to door and by mail solicitation. She has amassed about half of the 200 cookbooks issued between 1900 and 1930. Some of her discoveries, bought for a few dollars, are now worth $60 to $75, Ms. Gardner-Flint says.

As a librarian, she is usually occupied by more serious matters. Assembling the Jell-O show, which will run through mid-September, was a welcome change. "It's a rather strange feeling," Ms. Gardner-Flint says. "I'm glad to see something fun and whimsical once in a while. Usually the exhibits are very scholarly and educational and this is more fun."

Anyone interested in seeing the Jell-O show can call Ms. Gardner-Flint at (410) 516-0341 or (410) 516-8348.

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