Jell-O museum chronicles dessert's shaky start

A view of the Jell-O Museum in New York state.

A view of the Jell-O Museum in New York state.

ANNE-MARIE TOBIN, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

LE ROY, N.Y. -- This picturesque town in western New York State is home to the Jell-O Gallery, a museum dedicated to the sugary and wobbly gelatinous confection that has been a cafeteria staple and go-to dessert in North American homes for over a century.

Driving along Main Street during a family holiday, we overshot our intended destination and turned north onto a tree-lined street, passing gracious old homes and newer dwellings, and almost reaching the town's outskirts. We stopped to change direction at a Mission Style brown brick building with a presence that appeared noteworthy -- low-rise and elegant in the front, disguising a hulking factory warehouse area in the rear. It had been a fortuitous wrong turn, for this really was the best starting point for a trip down Jell-O memory lane.

A blue plaque, courtesy of the LeRoy Historical Society, revealed that Jell-O -- "America's Most Famous Dessert" -- was manufactured on this site from 1900 to 1964.

Making our way back to Main Street, it was easy to imagine workers of long ago leaving well-kept homes each morning to take their place on the factory floor, packaging a powder that would go into kitchens across the land and, when prepared and served, cause smiling youngsters to jiggle and slurp every spoonful.

A welcoming guide filled in the background details when we entered the Jell-O Gallery, an imposing grey limestone structure built as part of a school in 1898, and partially obscured from the street by another attraction, Historic LeRoy House.

The Jell-O story began with Pearle B. Wait, a carpenter with some down-time in the winter, who already had experience selling cough medicine and laxative tea. He decided in 1897 to package gelatin, flavouring, sugar and colouring together. His wife May is credited with providing the name, and Wait had it registered. They tried for a couple of years to sell the newfangled dessert, but didn't do well.

Discouraged, Wait sold the rights to Jell-O in 1899 to entrepreneur Orator Woodward for $450, which at the time was enough cash to allow Wait to buy a house.

Museum curator Lynne Belluscio said Woodward hired the best advertisers in New York City, and his approach to marketing turned the product into a great success.

"He had salesmen that went around not necessarily to sell door-to-door but to give away free recipe books, because they knew that once people got recipes and saw how easy it was that they would then want to go to the store and buy this new dessert," she said.

The original flavours were orange, strawberry, lemon and raspberry. Woodward died in 1906, and by 1907, Jell-O was grossing close to $1 million, Belluscio said.

The museum contains memorabilia from the early days: Marketing materials, posters, advertisements and recipes for elaborate desserts and jellied salads. The famed Norman Rockwell was among the artists whose illustrations helped to sell the product.

Over the years, pudding and various gelatin flavours were added. Some visitors will remember layered 1-2-3 Jell-O, which was a novelty when it was introduced in 1969 for a brief time, and again in the 1980s. Jelly moulds are on display, as well as old packaging and branded toys associated with Jell-O.

A vintage television has looped showings of funny commercials featuring Bill Cosby. In radio's golden era, Jack Benny was a spokesman.

In the early 60s, more than 300 townspeople were employed at the food plant, Belluscio said.

It might seem odd that a product still found on grocery shelves should be the subject of its own museum. But these days, Jell-O is truly part of LeRoy's past, more than its present.

Jell-O was sold to Postum in 1925, a merger that resulted in the creation of General Foods. Production continued in LeRoy until General Foods closed the plant in 1964 because it felt there was no way to expand there, Belluscio said. Now, much of the manufacturing takes place in Delaware under the umbrella of Kraft Foods.

The small museum in LeRoy opened on Jell-O's 100th anniversary in 1997. Belluscio said it attracts about 13,000 visitors per year, including "a lot of folks from Canada."

Jell-O's parent company has helped by keeping a billboard on the freeway, but aside from that, she said the museum is supported by admissions and proceeds from the gift shop.

NEED TO KNOW

LeRoy is about an hour's drive east of Buffalo. The museum is at 23 East Main St. From I-90, take exit 47 and travel south on Route 19. Turn left onto Route 5 (Main Street). The old factory building is on North Street, and is not open to the public.

From April 1 to Dec. 31, the museum is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday to Saturday, and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. on Sundays. From Jan. 1-March 31, it is open weekdays only from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed on major holidays. For information, call 585-768-7433. Admission: Adults $4.50; children 6-11 $1.50; 5 and under are free.


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