JELL-O’s dark side: The dessert company’s little known secrets
Jell-O delighted many families, but not so much the family that built its empire. Allie Rowbottom is a part of the Jell-O clan and writes in her 2018 book, ‘Jell-O Girls: A Family History,’ that her family both benefited from Jell-O wealth and suffered the so-called “Jell-O Curse.”
Jell-O’s little known dark family and company history juxtaposes against the dessert’s sweet and happy façade. Sure you have room for J-E-L-L-O? The following secrets might make you skip dessert…
Jell-O’s selling price went from hundreds to millions of dollars
Rowbottom’s family history with Jell-O started in 1899 when her great-great-great-uncle, Orator Francis Woodward, purchased the dessert company for a mere $450. Jell-O was first trademarked, however, by carpenter and cough syrup manufacturer Pearle Bixby Wait. Woodward sold Jell-O 26 years later for an amount that would fund several generations of heirs.
Woodward got $67 million from Jell-O’s sale, ensuring most of his predecessors would be set financially. Rowbottom’s great-great-aunt, Edith, married into the Jell-O family in 1903, getting hitched with Orator Woodward’s son, Ernest. Also involved with the family business, Ernest’s ideas changed the game for the dessert.
NEXT: Jell-O’s sales spiked when Ernest suggested this.
Jell-O was marketed towards middle class moms and wives
Ernest Woodward introduced a couple of serious money making strategies to the Jell-O company. Ernest urged Jell-O to adopt an assembly line in order to increase production. He also began the company’s tradition of marketing primarily to women. Jell-O’s ads had several not so subtle messages for the women of the house.
Jell-O was advertised as being able to help women prepare quick, delicious family meals. “Even if you can’t cook, you can still make Jell-O dessert,” the ads claimed. Ads were especially geared towards women who lost housekeepers to lucrative factory jobs.
NEXT: Rowbottom sees a sexist message in these ads.
The dessert’s ads tell women their “primary purpose”
Rowbottom says many Jell-O ads told women self-sacrifice and caretaking were their primary purposes. Early ads were featured in women’s magazines, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, with messages like “[it’s] so easy… even a child can do it.” In the 1930s-40s, Jell-O was advertised to women as a “food stretcher,” incorporating leftovers into Jell-O salad.
Rowbottom argues the dessert represented domesticity and perfection in the 1950s-60s. An image of a woman presenting her husband with Jell-O appears in A Bride’s Best Friend and ads often deemed it a convenient “diet food” NEXT: Jell-O is pretty on the outside, not on the inside.
What Jell-O is made of might gross you out
Ernest was described by Rowbottom in a Vanity Fair article as short and serious, and obsessed with two things: his pets and Jell-O (which, ironically, is made from not so fortunate animals). Gelatin was first popularized in the Victorian Era and became a central ingredient in Jell-O products. It’s a protein produced from collagen extracted from boiled animal bones.
As you can imagine, Jell-O products are a no-go for vegan and vegetarian diets. In Vanity Fair, Rowbottom explains the dessert is now made of pig and cow hides and produced in a top-secret process.
NEXT: Rowbottom says Jell-O women’s fortunes were controlled by men.
Jell-O women never had much of a say
As was standard in many early 1900s businesses, the Woodward women were absent from the Jell-O family business. They instead spent their time taking care of children and serving on boards and charities. Rowbottom argued their wealth was still controlled by men long after the last patriarchs had died in 1925.
The Woodward women’s trusts were managed for them by male bankers who determined their monthly allowances. This money management arrangement for Woodward women continued even after Jell-O was sold to Postum, which later became General Foods, then Kraft.
NEXT: Jell-O changed the town LeRoy, New York forever when it did this.
LeRoy, NY was prosperous until Jell-O’s factory left
In LeRoy, New York, “trucks arrived each week heaped with the dusty remnants of tissue and bone” headed to the Jell-O factory, Rowbottom writes in Jell-O Girls. From these crushed animal parts, emerged sweet, colorful, and dainty Jell-O. It looked completely different — and more appetizing — than its original ingredients.
Just like Jell-O’s ingredients were transformed, LeRoy transformed into a town of prosperity with the dessert’s production. Jell-O’s presence couldn’t be ignored — even the town’s river changed color each week depending on what flavors were in the Jell-O factory vats.
NEXT: Jell-O left a bad taste in LeRoy’s mouth.
This town swore off Jell-O forever
General Foods eventually closed the original Jell-O factory in LeRoy, New York and moved production to Delaware. The company had employed so many people in the small Northeastern town who were now faced with an intense choice: move to Delaware or lose their job. LeRoy natives felt betrayed, says Rowbottom.
Some LeRoy residents felt so betrayed that they swore off the jiggly dessert. By the 1980s, it was clear that Jell-O’s departure might have had an extreme effect on the town: LeRoy’s median income fell beneath the national average.
NEXT: Did the town’s poor predicament have anything to do with a mysterious illness?
Girls in LeRoy developed a strange illness in 2011
Journalists and TV cameras flocked to LeRoy in 2011, determined to get the scoop on this story: A group of high school girls, one 36-year-old woman, and a young boy suddenly started exhibiting Tourette’s-like symptoms without an obvious cause. Some thought the environment, stressors related to poor circumstances in LeRoy or “mass hysteria” were causes.
Rowbottom, obsessed with the story, had her own thoughts on the matter: “Could their twitching have been what some neurologists said it was — a conversion disorder, the logical response to a culture that doesn’t help them process their emotions?”
NEXT: Grandmother Midge experienced the “Jell-O curse.”
Her grandmother tried to be like the doting women in Jell-O ads
Rowbottom writes in Jell-O Girls that her grandmother, Midge, suffered from the “Jell-O Curse.” Midge gave up her artistic ambitions to be a good wife and mother — just like the women in the Jell-O ads. Midge got cancer and ended up dying a painful death when her daughter, Mary, was 14.
Mary, Rowbottom’s mother, believed she could avoid Jell-O’s curse if she played the “role assigned to her,” according to the New York Times. Seeing her mother die showed Mary that being compliant wouldn’t protect her against suffering, so she broke out of her role.
NEXT: Mary couldn’t escape the Jell-O curse.
Did Jell-O ads “sell a lie?”
The New York Times book review of Jell-O Girls says Jell-O paid for Mary’s life as an “orphan artist” and funded her stay in a psychiatric clinic. However, Mary didn’t think Jell-O was good for much else. Mary had a calm 1950s childhood then rebelled in the 1960s — typical of baby boomers.
Mary couldn’t stand Jell-O. She also thought Jell-O ads sold a lie — “reducing a woman’s worth to how smoothly she managed her domestic affairs,” the New York Times writes. Cheerful Jell-O ads of doting wives and mothers didn’t sit well with Mary.
NEXT: Jell-O haunted Mary until the very end.
The last thing Mary ever ate was the dessert she hated
Like her mother Midge, Mary also got cancer. She got sicker and sicker throughout the years — at her daughter’s wedding, she was so frail that Rowbottom was startled by her appearance. “I found her unfamiliar, rouged like a corpse, her tumid ankles peeking out, inflated and purple,” she writes in her book.
Jell-O Girls opens with Rowbottom feeding her dying mother the dessert she hates the most — Jell-O. “But sick as she was that winter, Jell-O was all she could keep down. ‘Who would have thought,’ she whispered one night as I was feeding her,” Rowbottom writes.
NEXT: Mary eventually accepts Jell-O.
Mary came around to Jell-O at the end
Rowbottom tells Robin Young on “Here and Now” on WBUR that Mary accepted Jell-O, eventually, even though she made a point of avoiding the dessert most of her life. Rowbottom says her mother saw it as a symbol of patriarchy and her family’s struggle against patriarchal forces and the Jell-O curse.
“At the end of her life, when it turned out that Jell-O was the only thing that she could stomach, it was this sort of grim irony. Unfortunately, it wound up being the last thing she ever ate,” Rowbottom tell Robin Young.
NEXT: Mary’s Jell-O money was hard for her to get.
Mary couldn’t access her Jell-O inheritance
Rowbottom says her mother was dismissed in life in two crucial ways. The New York Times writes that Mary was wrongly ignored by doctors when she complained about her health. Instead of taking her concerns seriously, they wrote her off as “hysterical.” She was not hysterical — her body was riddled with carcinoid tumors.
Besides being doubted in the medical world, Mary was denied free access to her own inheritance. She tried to gain control of it through her older brother whose access to his own inheritance was never challenged. Unfortunately, her attempts in court failed.
NEXT: Mary also tried writing about Jell-O.
Mary died before finishing her own Jell-O memoir
Mary was determined to uncover her family’s past, the impact of Jell-O on her life, and the origins of her illness. She obsessively researched her history, even as her mortality was threatened by cancer. Mary had boxes of research by the time she died in 2015 and had been sending them to her daughter.
By sending Rowbottom her research, Mary hoped that her daughter could write what she couldn’t. Mary, unfortunately, couldn’t finish her memoir (Rowbottom said she pronounced it “memwah”). Still, her daughter was able to look through her research as she penned her book.
NEXT: Rowbottom takes on the Jell-O curse herself.
Did Jell-O curse this author?
Rowbottom’s personal story comes up halfway through the Jell-O Girls memoir. An only child born in the mid-1980s, she also suffered ailments like her mother and grandmother. Rowbottom struggled with an eating disorder and stiffness in her hands — her hands would curve into a claw during stressful moments.
Rowbottom tells Robin Young on Boston’s NPR station WBUR: “A lot of my struggle traced back to not feeling free to speak. Once I started to speak and express myself in therapy and to learn that it was safe to do so, my symptoms became less present.”
NEXT: Jell-O for a slim life?
Jell-O was marketed as a diet food
A phrase the brand repeated a lot during its history was “salads for a slim life,” which later became a chapter in the famous Jell-O cookbook. Jell-O did a lot of marketing as a diet food, aside from the Great Depression and wartimes (as food was scarce), according to the New York Times.
Jell-O released a low-calorie version of its jiggly dessert called D-Zerta (sounds more like a chemical rather than a food) aimed at women wanting to achieve perfection. The product sold well during the diet craze in the ’80s.
NEXT: The men in the Jell-O family weren’t very lucky.
Here’s how Jell-O cursed the men in the family
Oprah Magazine’s review of Jell-O Girls states the men of the Jell-O family empire experienced existential boredom, alcoholism, and early death. Meanwhile, the dark side for Jell-O women was “a corrosive subservience that imposed silence, and the sickness silence plants, like seeds, inside women.” Male or female — these both sound terrible.
More money means more money, but it also means more to lose. For example, Rowbottom’s uncle divorced and mismanaged his way out of his Jell-O fortune. He then ended his life by throwing himself off the roof of a Sheraton hotel.
NEXT: Jell-O’s marketing changes as women’s roles change.
Jell-O marketed itself as “healthy” even though it wasn’t
Jell-O tried to keep up with the times, Rowbottom writes in her book. Innovations in the product could be a spur to change. The popular Jell-O cookbook marketed the dessert as a health food as a way to appeal to 1970s independent women. Perhaps it was continuing to help women achieve “perfection?”
An example of such “healthy” marketing might be found in the “Green Goddess Salad Bowl.” For this delight, you’ll need lime Jell-O, sour cream, and anchovies for starters. It wasn’t quite health food but it gestured towards the concept of it.
NEXT: Rowbottom asserts that this is what the Jell-O Curse is.
Is the “Jell-O Curse” the patriarchy?
Throughout her book Jell-O Girls, author Rowbottom asserts that the curse Jell-O afflicted on her family was patriarchy. “I’d agree that it’s patriarchy and, more specifically, the patriarchal imperative to keep women silent, separate from ourselves and each other,” she told Bitch Media of her thoughts on Jell-O’s curse.
Women have always been told where and how to fit into U.S. culture and Jell-O’s marketing was such an example of this. In fact, one could say that Jell-O’s marketing strategy came to embody the persona of the dutiful housewife. For Rowbottom and her female relatives, these values became familial obligations they must adhere to. NEXT: Jell-O as a “safe food”?
Sugar-free Jell-O was once part of this heir’s diet
Despite her mother Mary’s best efforts, Rowbottom struggled with an eating disorder during high school and early college years. She decided on some “safe foods” to incorporate into her diet, including sugar-free Jell-O. The years she spent eating the dessert her mother hated so much still stand out to her.
Rowbottom felt this was a personal affront to her mother as she’d spent most of life rejecting Jell-O. She did successfully treat her disorder after attending a program, however. Jell-O’s presence in her struggle might relate to its marketing as a “diet food” to women.
NEXT: Does she eat Jell-O now?
Jell-O is a few steps removed from cough syrup
Jell-O’s inventor, Pearle B. Wait, created the first successful gelatin recipe while doing side work as a manufacturer of medicines like cough syrup and laxatives. His medicine business wasn’t doing so well, so he decided to branch out into the food industry. He and his wife, May, added flavors like strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon to make the goo more palatable and thus the four OG Jell-O flavors were created.
Mental Floss thinks that these flavors might have been on hand from Pearle’s medicinal concoctions. Good thing he added these flavors too. Without them — and sugar — gelatin is just translucent tasteless gunk.
NEXT: Europe thinks Jell-O is a danger to kids.
Jell-O has a warning label in Europe
…but not in the U.S.? A 2016 article in Food Babe said these European labels said Jell-O “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” This is because of the artificial dyes present in Jell-O — Europe is much more wary of these than the U.S. is.
A study from Purdue University says the U.S. uses too much dye in its food. No wonder the warning labels don’t appear here like they do in Europe. Jell-O uses Blue Number One in several flavors, which is the worst because it crosses the blood-brain barrier.
NEXT: This actor was on a “Jell-O diet.”
Jell-O isn’t a good diet food
It’s true that the jiggly dessert is low-calorie, fat-free and sometimes sugar-free but it’s basically free of any nutritional value at all. Actor John Malkovich claimed to do a four-month Jell-O diet as a teen, emerging 70 pounds lighter. Not sure how he survived on eating only translucent desserts?
Many dieters do favor the snack as a diet food — just like Jell-O encouraged back in the day with its Green Goddess Salad and D-Zerta. It makes up for its lack of nutrition with loads of sugar, which isn’t healthy either.
NEXT: She didn’t know she was part of the Jell-O family.
She found out she was a Jell-O heir
Growing up, Elizabeth McNabb had no idea she was part of the Jell-O clan, nor did she know she was adopted. At age 19, she began a long search to discover the identity of her birth mother. She came upon Barbara Woodward, a direct heir to the Jell-O fortune. She would soon discover that Woodward was involved with a bit of a scandal in the past…
Turns out that Woodward had gotten pregnant with a married man’s child and gave up McNabb for adoption. When Woodward died in 2003, McNabb sued for a piece of the Jell-O inheritance and won. She got a whopping $3.5 million in 2007.
NEXT: J-E-L-L-O, it’s alivvvve!
Jell-O is alive according to this 1974 experiment
Dr. Adrian Upton hooked up an EEG, electroencephalogram, to a mold of lime green Jell-O in 1974. What he found was pretty unexpected: The Jell-O produced alpha waves, just like humans do! The science world went HAM at the time but didn’t realize what Upton was really trying to prove…
He was trying to say that EEG machines shouldn’t be the only determinant in figuring out whether or not a human is alive. We all know Jell-O isn’t actually alive although it’s made of critters that were once alive.
NEXT: This state eats more Jell-O than the rest of the nation.
Utah passed the “Resolution Urging Jell-O Recognition”
Leonard M. Blackham, a Utah state representative, introduced resolution 5 in order to recognize Jell-O brand gelatin as the “favorite snack of Utah.” With only two votes dissenting, Jell-O became the state’s official snack food. It was a particularly popular resolution as the jiggly dessert was a favorite of this church…
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormon church, really liked Jell-O according to Gizmodo. The Mormon Corridor region in Utah was given the nickname “Jell-O Belt.” This was because Salt Lake City had the highest consumption of Jell-O in the U.S.
NEXT: These immigrants’ first introduction to American food was Jell-O.
Immigrants on Ellis Island were given Jell-O molds
Jell-O had all sorts of marketing tactics — cookbooks, advertising in ladies’ magazines, promoting itself as a diet food, etc. One marketing tactic was giving out free Jell-O molds to immigrants arriving on Ellis Island. This was often many people’s first introduction to U.S. food, a shimmering symbol of the American Dream.
The Chicago Tribune says that Jell-O did become a favorite food of many immigrants and their families for that reason, for what it represented. Perhaps family lore recalled their ancestors being introduced to it on Ellis Island? It is a romantic vision!
NEXT: Jell-O used to be used in savory salads.
Tuna in your Jell-O mold?
Remember the Green Goddess Salad we mentioned above? That recipe called for ingredients like Jell-O, mayo, anchovies and more. Now savory Jell-O doesn’t have a wide audience but it used to be all the rage back in the day. It was very commonly used by moms and wives as a “food stretcher.”
To give leftovers a new life, moms and wives would stick bits of leftovers within it to make a dinner. There were recipes involving savory foods we’d never consider today, like tomato and tuna fish. People that would find that appetizing today are few and far in between.
NEXT: There’s some pretty weird alternatives to Jell-O.
Is Jell-O the WD-40 of your pantry?
So, you can do other things with Jell-O besides eat it as a snack, for dessert, or to hide your leftovers in. Some cat owners sprinkle it over cat litter (to get rid of the smell we assume?), but it doesn’t seem like that would be good for cats.
It can also be used as a dye for hair or clothing, made into finger paint, or used for ridding bathrooms of soap scum. People involved in Greek life or other activities demeaning to women also use it for wrestling. See — Jell-O can fit most every need.
NEXT: Jell-O was used to “part the sea.”
Jell-O created miracles in this silent film
The slippery, jiggly snack was used to create an effect of keeping the Red Sea parted in the 1923 film, The Ten Commandments, directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille (not the 1956 Charlton Heston-starring movie of the same name, FYI.) The Red Sea parted as the Israelites escaped Egypt.
If you look closely, you might see the wall the Israelites walked through jiggle. It truly stole the show! Some questions remained unanswered: How much Jell-O was needed to create this movie magic? Also what flavor was it? That information we may never know, but it was a cool looking effect nevertheless!