By Jennifer Weber
Just a short drive across the I-90 in LeRoy, NY, sits a small, unassuming and adorably kitschy museum dedicated to “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” Nope, not apple pie, not chocolate cake, but the birthplace of the wiggly, jiggly Jell-o. Yes, a whole museum dedicated to Jell-o. The same Jell-o you find various varieties of floating fruits suspended in on the Thanksgiving table. It’s worth a visit.
The Jell-o Museum is located at 23 East Main Street in LeRoy, a town known as the birthplace of Jell-o. The day I went to visit the museum with friends, the former mayor of LeRoy, gave us the introduction to the Jell-o Museum History Lecture. Who knew there were so many things to learn about America’s Dainty Dessert?
For example, in 1897, a carpenter in town expanded on the gelatin patent and then sold the rights to a local salesman in town for only $450. The Jell-o Marketing campaign involved the owner personally visiting one small town to the next small town, passing out free samples and cookbooks along the way to the people in the community. From there? He went to the local grocers and told them to stock up because people would be asking for Jell-o. Guess what? It worked! Thank goodness it did; otherwise, his family would have had him institutionalized— they thought he was going mad!
After the door-to-door method, advertising in ladies’ journals and magazines and the radio took the popularity of Jell-o to a world-wide audience. The museum has a wonderful variety of advertising campaigns over the years on display, which once included a shrine to Bill Cosby, as well as the little blonde-haired Jell-o girl.
While walking through the exhibit, you will see vintage videos of Jell-O television commercials from the past five decades and hear recordings from past Jell-o spokespeople, such as Jack Benny, who helped get that never ending jingle of J-E-L-L-O stuck in our heads as children.
In addition to the advertisements, there’s an entire gallery of oil paintings featuring Jell-o desserts hanging on the wall. So fancy for such a simple dessert.
Throughout the museum, you will find many quirky artifacts and tidbits of trivia.
• For example, while you can find over 60 of flavors of Jell-o today on the shelves, the original four flavors were lemon, orange, raspberry and strawberry. Over the years, more interesting flavors have been produced as well, such as coffee and tomato.
• In 1993 a hospital in Batavia tested a bowl of lime Jell-O with an EEG machine and confirmed that a bowl of wiggly Jell-O has brain waves identical to those of adult men and women.
• And did you know that Utah named Jell-o the Official State Snack? Yes, you can read the declaration right there on the wall. “Be it resolved by the Senate of the state of Utah: WHEREAS, Jell-O® brand gelatin was introduced to the country in 1897, just one year after Utah was admitted to the Union as the 45th state; WHEREAS, Utah has been the number one per capita consumer of Jell-O® brand gelatin for many years; WHEREAS, Jell-O® is representative of good family fun, which Utah is known for throughout the world.” And it goes on…but you have to read it for yourself.
The other not-to-be missed part of the museum experience is the gift shop, which has Jell-o EVERYTHING. I came home with a pair of boxer shorts that say “See it Jiggle! Watch it Wiggle!” and a chef hat, which I promptly put on my head and did not take off for the rest of the day.
And while you might think that was enough fun for one museum, there’s more. Downstairs there was not only a fiberglass Jell-o Cow on display, but a smattering of historical transportation items at the LeRoy Historical Museum.
Jell-O left the small town of LeRoy in 1964 and is now manufactured by Kraft/General Foods in Dover, Delaware. However, the legacy of the dessert lives on at the Jell-o Museum, which is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $1.50 for children ages 6-11 and free for kids under 5 years old.
For more information visit http://www.jellogallery.org or call (585) 768-7433.