Friday, March 16, 2012

16 March 1933 “Gelatin Salads and Molds: From Calves' Foot Jelly to Jell-O”

gelatincover Yes, even here in 1930’s the gelatin molded salad and side dish exits. In the 1950’s we often saw such salads and easy to make ‘aspic’ with canned tomato soup, powdered gelatin and the like.

However, the predecessor to this type of instant gelatin was calves' foot jelly. Even the gelatin (such as Jell-O) of today, is still made with parts of the feet of cow/pig and sometime chicken.It is a protein produced from collagen extracted from the boiled bones, connective tissues, and intestines of animals. Its taste and wholesomeness is a far cry from our Victorian Sister’s version. Theirs contained carful boiling of whole split feet, while ours is hoof scrapings and mainly by-product of the leather industry.

Even in the Victorian times, one could buy sheets of gelatin, rather than boil down feet to derive it. However, it needed to be boiled down and purified and was expensive and therefore more used by the wealthy. The act of boiling the feet down, skimming the top of fat and letting it set, was all that was required to create gelatin from scratch.

In 1845 the American Industrialist patented a powdered form of gelatin, but had trouble marketing it. It was subsequently sold a few times and during the early 1900’s ads were placed in Ladies Home Journals describing it as “America’s Famous Dessert”, though it was not, and sales were still rather low.

Then Genesee Food company, who now owned it, sent out en masse salesmen and door to door free booklets and samples. By the late 1920’s they began adding fruit flavors like cherry and even chocolate (where before it was simply the solidifying agent to which you added your flavoring) and it took off.

By 1930, there appeared a vogue in American cuisine for congealed salads, and the company introduced lime-flavored Jell-O to complement the various add-ins that cooks across the U.S. were combining in these aspics and salads. By the 1950s, these salads would become so popular that Jell-O responded with savory and vegetable flavors such as celery, Italian, mixed vegetable and seasoned tomato. These savory flavors have since been discontinued.

In 1934, sponsorship from Jell-O made comedian Jack Benny the dessert's spokesperson. At this time also was introduced a jingle (created by the agency Young & Rubicam) that would be familiar over the next several decades, in which the spelling "J-E-L-L-O" was (or could be) sung over a rising five-note musical theme.

Therefore, next year 1934, Jell-O will become an everyday part of the homemakers life.

A bit more about how gelatin was once made. The key component in gelatin is collagen (a protein found mainly in connective tissue, in which feet abound.) Collagen makes meat tough, but it also makes the same cut, after stewing, silky and rich.  That is why if one were to boil chicken’s feet in the making of their soup, they will find it has extra body and taste. Therefore,  collagen that is hot will impart richness to dishes while when it is chilled, it turns to gelatin.

This link HERE will take you to a great old British recipe to make your own calves foot jelly. Caster sugar, for we American’s, can be harder to come by. It is sometimes sold in small boxes at larger grocers. If is not as fine as our powdered or confectioners sugar. So, you can make your own by simply taking normal grained sugar and putting it in a food processor or electric coffee grinder. If not, you can use regular  sugar, only it will take a bit longer to dissolve.

The mass production of gelatin today is not made of these nicer connective tissues and are, as I stated, mainly a by-product of the leather and meat industry.  Here is a chart of the make up of modern gelatin gelatinchart

Besides Jell-O and other powdered forms of dessert, Gelatin is used in many things on the market. Low-fat yogurts, marshmallows, candy-corn, jams, cream cheese,  and margarine to name a few. It is used in almost all ‘low-fat’ foods to give the product the ‘feel’ of the fat that is not actually used. It is also used in the clarifying of fruit juices. And in prescription drugs and vitamins, the plastic type gel-caps are made of this same commercial grade gelatin.

As I discovered what goes into modern gelatin, which is used in many more things than Jell-O, I had to laugh at people who are squeamish about ‘old recipes’. To many the idea of using the collagen boiled out of an actual calves foot as a base for food is disgusting. Yet, the literal floor scrapings of the modern gelatin production seems to me to be far more likely to contain unknown agents. And the flavor is not there with the contents of modern gelatin production that a slow boil of wholesome and whole food would produce.

But, here in 1933 we do have pre-packaged powdered gelatin. I have a feeling its production is a bit more ‘whole’ than it is today. And it is readily available and still prized by homemakers. We must remember the rainbow colored overly sugared versions that become the laughable memories of today that once graced the tables of the late 50’s into the 1970’s have not as yet been invented. Today in 1933 the idea of an aspic or a jellied savory or dessert is still a prized showpiece for the homemaker’s table.

So, here is an article with some recipes from my 1930’s Hostess Handbook. Click image to read full size.



Knox and Jell-O were both readily available and here we see the cover of a book I might have had in my kitchen library.jellobook

knoxrecipeThis lovely salad with asparagus, to me, seems a lovely treat I’d be happy to serve at my table. And I find I respond with more anticipation at the savory aspects of this form than I do the bright red dessert version covered in whipped cream. Though, as a dessert, unflavored gelatin to which you add fresh fruit juices and fruits and sparkling waters, makes a lovely dessert.

Let me close with a Jack Benny radio program from 1938 for Easter. It is sponsored by Jell-O and you can hear the advertising as well as the funny Jack Benny program. Enjoy it!

Any way you slice it, and I mean that quite literally, gelatin has been around for awhile. And the mass produced easy form is very much a part of the homemakers kitchen here in 1933 as it will increasingly become by 1955. I need to try and make more gelatin inspired dishes. Have you any favorites or are you put off by the wobbly form of food?

Happy Homemaking.


  1. When I lived in Utah, I saw how Jello was made-modern version, and gagged. I am now in agreement with you that the old ways are the way. On our little farm we are learning the old ways, and discovering how great foods raised or home grown are.

    Thanks for sharing and gently reminding us that the old ways are not all bad.


  2. Great post!! :) I have never been a jello fan. But I do love to see the recipes from the past. I will occasionally eat a already prepared cherry or strawberry jello. Hmm.. Maybe I should try one of the older recipes out.. maybe I just don't know what I am missing. :)
    And I so adore jack benny!

  3. If they make gelatin from leather making by products, it is no stretch of the imagination to question where the rest of our "food" comes from! Maybe agar-agar, a vegetable gelatin substitute, might be better.


  4. Gelatin, like many food items, goes through cycles of popularity. I recall as a young lad shimmering creations of molded gelatin with fruit and/or vegetables encased inside. I think part of the lure of gelatin was the eye-catching drama it had on the serving plates and that they could be created cheaply with just some produce one had on hand. I am not much of a consumer of gelatin salads or desserts, but if I ever do make some, I use real fruit juice instead of relying on cloyingly artificial flavors and colors.

  5. I don't do jelly, or even jelly lollies. Even as a child I didn't like it, and then as a vego in the 80s and 90s I didn't eat it at all. Now I eat meat, in all forms, but I still don't like jelly - I think it's the texture. Now I make it for the kids, and they all love it - and love it more as I don't try and have a taste of theirs!
    Those salad jelly creations look so lovely though.....

  6. Don’t know what the gender breakdown is of your readers but I am male in my sixties and I am thoroughly enjoying your blog. I don’t remember how I found it but I am now up to February 1010. I particularly enjoy your “current events” comments, having lived through those times. This could make an excellent text of the history of that era and how the average person lived through it. I find it particularly nostalgic reading about family life and recalling so many similar events in my own life.

    I hope I am not out of line by jumping in now but I just read a couple of entries about how you enjoy setting your hair and finding the time to do it. A list entitled “Budgeting Your Time” (Jan 22 2010) under “Late Afternoon” suggests “Rest, Relaxation, Correspondence, Reading, Personal care, etc.”. Wow! This could be right out of my family life. My mother set aside an hour every weekday for sitting under her hair dryer. Probably she did not wash her hair every day but she did do a complete set, covered with a brown net, and took a time out that was not to be disturbed. The dryer was a floor mounted professional style that she had purchased from a local beauty salon that was “upgrading”. (Sorry, I hate that term too. As you have demonstrated, much of the appliances produced then would last a lifetime and that dryer was no exception.) It was big, cone shaped and shiny chrome finish. When I got home from school I would find my mother usually had already set her hair. She would spend a little time with me while I had a snack and she reviewed my day at school. She would then establish what my plans were for the rest of the afternoon (homework, going out to play ball or whatever) then she would plant herself under the pre-warmed dryer in her bedroom. We had strict orders not to disturb her during that hour. No doubt it did not take a full hour to dry her hair but she religiously maintained that time for herself. No phone, no TV, nothing short of a major hurricane interfered with this precious time. (A good example of how children obeyed their parents and could also find ways to amuse themselves.) She would read a book or magazine, paint her nails, or write letters. Yes, hand written in perfect penmanship on perfumed, pastel colored writing paper. When her hour was up she began to prepare dinner. At some age, maybe 8 to 10, I was shown how to properly set the table, always on linen table cloths and napkins. Mom would take her curlers out shortly before my father came home from work so she always was perfectly groomed for his arrival.

    Yes, those were the days!



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