(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).
On your holiday table there is product of one of the greatest American engineers of all time. In 1845, Peter Cooper invented Jell-O.
Cooper had a hand in most of the amazing achievements of the late 19th century. He designed the first American locomotive, and helped lay telegraph cables under the Atlantic ocean. He also owned a glue factory, which led to Jell-O.
Glue, at the time, was made by rendering animals. Rendering means, literately, to melt down an animal. There are always rumors that Jell-O is hooves or other disgusting parts of an animal. In a way it is.
Jell-O is made from a protein called collagen. In mammals, like us, it makes up about a third of our bodies, and makes our skin, bones, and tendons strong and elastic. The collagen in Jell-O comes from cows and pigs, but it goes through so many steps of processing that the FDA doesn't consider it a meat product; in fact, Jell-O is the only pork product certified Kosher.
Cooper figured out how to render animal collagen so that it turned into the flavorless, wiggly clear substance we now call Jell-O. He advertised it as "a transparent substance containing all the ingredients fitting it for table use ...." But few tables took up Cooper's invention.
It resurfaced a half century later when a man with the odd name Pearl B. Wait took it up. Pearl Wait and his wife made two great innovations in Jell-O. First, they added flavors - strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon.
And second, his wife added the "O" to Jell-O, basing it on a product their neighbor sold, a coffee-substitute called Grain-O. The "O" ending was a fad at the time, much like "-o-rama" was in the 1950s.
Wait failed, though, like Peter Cooper in getting any interest in his Jell-O. So, he sold it to their neighbor who made "grain-O."
This neighbor, a Mr. Woodward, placed ads featuring actress and opera singers, suggesting that Jell-O was a dessert of the elite. He hired Norman Rockwell to illustrate the ads. And he sent fleets of stylishly dressed salesman out in handsome, horse-drawn carriages. They demonstrated Jell-O at fairs, picnics, teas, weddings, and church socials. By 1902 Woodward was a millionaire.
Jell-O went through a golden age in the 1950s, then sales declined in the 60s and 70s. Lately, though, it has come back with a vengeance. Jigglers - a high-density Jell-O finger food - is popular with preschoolers, and a vodka-laced version appeals to the young adult party set.
I think, though, there is a fundamental reason that Jell-O will always be with us. It's this: Jell-O is like us. I've learned that if you hook up an EEG Machine to lime-flavored Jell-O, the Jell-O shows a pattern matching a healthy adult's brain waves.
Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises