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Nevada’s Yesteryear: Flavors jelled dessert’s success

Updated August 17, 2022 - 4:20 pm

Here’s a food item that everyone knows by name, from infants to those who are over 80 years of age. Everyone in Nevada knows it too, and it was even known a little bit back in Nevada’s Yesteryear.

Contrary to a widespread notion of some other source, gelatin is a protein obtained from the hides, skins, bones and sinews of animals. We all know it as Jell-O and have enjoyed it for years. It’s really older than you think, going back to the 17th century and the work of Frenchman Denis Papin (1647-1713), and even a few others before him.

Today, gelatin has many industrial uses, even in ice cream to help increase the resistance to heat. How about that? Jell-O in a waffle cone?

But the most popular use that you have known since childhood is as the jelling ingredient in the preparation of gelatin desserts and packaged pudding mixes. Oddly enough, the use of gelatin as a dessert itself was developed by the man who built the first steam locomotive in America: Peter Cooper. (He was later a presidential candidate in the 1876 election, won by Rutherford B. Hayes).

Cooper was a glue manufacturer and had a very lucrative business in the U.S. He founded Cooper Union Institute in Manhattan in 1859, where it still exists today. Glue is similar to gelatin except that the boiling treatment used in making glue is more thorough and results in a complete liquid. Because the heating process for gelatin is less intense, the jelling power is retained.

It was Cooper’s vision that a granulated gelatin would allow American consumers to enjoy this popular dessert without having the boil down the animal skins or bones. Believe it or not, he came up with a marketable product by 1845. But the first responses were not too good. So, it sat idle and unused for nearly 50 years.

Then, in 1895, a carpenter and cough syrup manufacturer, Pearle B. Wait picked up on the idea. He added flavors to the gelatin granules such as strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon. His wife May gave it the name Jell-O.

Wait sold the product in 1899 to O.F. Woodward, who began an aggressive advertising campaign in which he proclaimed Jell-O to be America’s most famous dessert. Dozens of ads appeared in newspapers, monthly publications and roadside advertising assuring mothers that Jell-O was easy to fix and good for children.

It then began to be served in the dining cars of passenger trains that crisscrossed the country daily, Nevada included.

Today, Jell-O, owned by the Kraft Heinz Company of Chicago, is sold in a variety of flavors and forms around the world. When was the last time you had some? You don’t have to go very far to find it. It’s right there on the shelves of your favorite grocery store.

Dave Maxwell is a Nevada news reporter with over 35 years in print and broadcast journalism, and greatly interested in early Nevada history. He can be reached at maxwellhe@yahoo.com.

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