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Johnstown isn’t New York state’s only gelatin connection

September 16, 2012
By ANITA?HANABURGH ( , The Leader Herald

I've been thinking a lot about Jell-O this past summer. (You may say, "Jell-O? Anita, get a life.") I got to thinking about Jell-O when I visited the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown. As you walk into the big building, there is a display of many products whose history began in New York state. There are Saratoga Chips, Thousand Island dressing and ice cream, and there is a large display of Jell-O. Of course, I thought, Knox Gelatine began in Johnstown! Wrong.

The display tells the story of "Jell-O," that jiggly mix of fruit flavors, bright colors, sugar , cold water, boiling water, and gelatin. The display shows old gelatin molds, a Jell-O-themed Barbie ... you get the picture.

It displays the creation of Jell-O in New York state, but not Knox Gelatine.

Article Photos

The early promotions for Knox Gelatine, like this ad, invited ladies to write for a free book of recipes for gel desserts.

Gelatin, a protein produced from collagen extracted from the boiled bones, connective tissues and intestines of animals, had been well-known and used for many years. If you have ever made a meat stock, you are familiar with gelatin. After refrigerating the stock, the liquid takes on a jelly-like substance.

During the Victorian era, the use of jelly moulds became popular. Elaborate, tall moulds were made as spectacular additions to elaborate buffets. To use it in a dessert, the gelatin had to be purified from the meat source. At this time, the extraction of gelatin from meat was very difficult (save the details!) and very time-consuming. Making gel desserts also required consistent refrigeration, which wasn't universally available. These concerns made gelatin desserts a luxury of the wealthy class.

Enter Charles Knox - or enter Peter Cooper. Charles B. Knox, a salesman from Johnstown, hit on the idea of making gelatin more convenient after watching his wife, Rose, make it in their kitchen. Knox packaged dried sheets of gelatin and then hired salesmen to travel door-to-door to show women how to add liquid to the sheets and use them to make aspics, molds and desserts.

But the first patent for a powered gelatin dessert was issued to Peter Cooper, who, along with being the inventor of the Tom Thumb steam engine, made a fortune in the manufacture of glue, a process similar to that for making gelatin. It appears from all accounts that the Knoxes developed their product simultaneously but unconnected to Cooper.

Cooper then sold his patent years later to P. B. Wait, a cough syrup manufacturer from LeRoy, near Rochester. He and his wife, May, added strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon flavoring to the powder and named the product "Jell-O" in 1897. The rest is history.

So what of Knox Gelatine? The company kept its product sparkling and clean - pure gelatin with no sugar added.

The two products, Knox Gelatine and Jell-O, although different but related products, were very successful for several reasons - the first being this new technology that created powdered gelatin. Machine packaging and more widespread refrigeration played a big role, but the primary reason for the success of both products was that each company took advantage of marketing methods that were new at the time.

Charles B. Knox realized that, no matter how good the product, people must know about it before they will buy it. Mr. Knox had what has been fittingly described as "a keen sense of the situation," and he set out to make Knox Sparkling Gelatine known the country over. He advertised it with dirigible balloons and airplanes when these air navigating machines were in their infancy.

Mr. Knox's advertising methods were as varied as his grasp of this interesting and powerful manner of developing business. His methods and his results merit the attention of students of advertising and its professional followers.

In an ad in Ladies' Home Journal, Jell-O proclaimed its product to be "America's Most Famous Dessert," although initially few had heard of it. Jell-O sent enormous numbers of salesmen out into the field to distribute free Jell-O cookbooks, a pioneering marketing tactic at the time. Celebrity testimonials and recipes appeared in advertisements featuring actress Ethel Barrymore. Some Jell-O advertisements were painted by Maxfield Parrish.

But Mrs. Knox had written the first Knox recipe book many years before. These books were distributed free, and the recipes were used in their advertisements. Experience taught her that recipes drew women to buy her product and that she needed to continue to create recipes and more uses for the product. She began an experimental kitchen. (Ya gotta love her!)

New recipes were created to fill the ever-increasing demand. The famous little booklet "Dainty Desserts for Dainty People" was distributed in the millions. That booklet has gone through many editions and is recognized internationally today as the leading authority on the making of desserts, salads and gelatin candies. Yay, Rose.

I do wonder why the Farmers Museum chose to credit New York's gelatin connection to the "Jell-O" plant in LeRoy and not nearby Johnstown, with no mention of our famous Rose.

The Knox Mansion still stands around the corner from my house. I don't make a lot of gelatine dishes, but maybe I will this week, and next week I'll serve you all some Knox Gelatine recipes.

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