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Recipe Booklet, “Joys of Jell-O,” circa 1962
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As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I research objects within The Henry Ford’s collections that tell entrepreneurial stories. Most recently, I delved into the Recipe Booklet Collection, which includes recipe booklets and pamphlets from 1852-2006. In researching the many companies represented within the collection I became intrigued by the recipe booklets, and the entrepreneurial story, of the much beloved dessert: Jell-O.

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Colorful drawings in the recipe booklet, “Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert,” 1916 THF294400

For more than a century, Jell-O has been served at family gatherings, pot-lucks, and barbeques, becoming an American icon.

Jell-O is made with two primary ingredients: sugar and gelatin. Gelatin is made by extracting collagen from boiled animal bones, hooves, and tissue. Known for its binding capabilities, gelatin has been used as a recipe ingredient for centuries, particularly for molded desserts. Originally, gelatin dishes were most common in wealthy households where servants could be tasked with the time-consuming and unsavory work of making gelatin.

Gelatin is odorless and flavorless, always an added ingredient to a recipe and never a stand-alone dish. Advances in gelatin production eventually led to its packaged powdered form – an innovation that erased the time-consuming preparation and made the product available to nearly everyone. Still, sugar and spices had to be added by the maker. In 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter and patent medicine producer, combined fruit flavoring and sugar with gelatin powder to create a pre-packaged fruit-flavored dessert that just required boiling water and some time to cool and set. Pearle Wait and his wife, May, were amazed by the delicious result and the couple believed it would thrive in the packaged food business. May is attributed with having given the Jell-O name to the new product.

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Insert within the recipe booklet, “Jell-O Ice Cream Powder: Doesn’t That Look Good?” circa 1910 THF294409

The name “Jell-O” followed a trend at the time of adding an “O” to the end of product names.

With a catchy name and what he thought was a product full of potential, Pearle Wait attempted to sell his new product door-to-door. Unfortunately, Wait lacked the resources necessary to market his innovation, let alone hire salesmen. Less than two years after creating Jell-O, Wait sold the rights to the product and name to a fellow patent medicine competitor, Orator F. Woodward, for $450.

As owner of the Genesee Pure Food Company, Woodward had already experienced success with his health drink, Grain-O. After acquiring the rights to Jell-O, Woodward quickly created advertising for the promising product, but he too struggled to make a profit. He was so frustrated by his lack of initial success that he offered the Jell-O rights to one of his employees for $35. The man refused, which turned out to be extremely fortunate for Woodward. By 1902, his struggling Jell-O business had become a quarter-million-dollar success.

Some believe that this slow start was due to the fact that homemakers prided themselves on their homemaking skills. Ready-made products, such as Jell-O, were looked down upon as too simplistic, requiring no skill. Ironically, the product owed its success to recipe booklets, which provided creative uses for this ready-made product. As early as 1902, booklets were distributed by finely dressed salesmen who went door-to-door on distinctive wagons drawn by well-groomed horses. Once every household in a given area had a recipe booklet, a salesman would go to the local grocer and advise him to stock Jell-O to meet the impending demand. The recipe booklets were a huge success. Jell-O became a household name as homemakers across the country marveled at the “magic” dessert that could be transformed into a colorful dish for any occasion.

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Page from the recipe booklet, “Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert,” 1916 THF294401

Jell-O booklets included recipes for a variety of desserts. Some recipes called for additional ingredients of whipped cream, or fresh or canned fruit, while others suggested homemakers use a gelatin mold or specialty serving dishes for a beautiful, sophisticated presentation. 

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Recipe Booklet, “The Jell-O Girl Entertains,” circa 1930 THF294510

Jell-O introduced one of its most successful marketing strategies, the Jell-O Girl, in 1904. She helped reinforce the idea that children loved Jell-O and proved that it was easy to make – so easy a child could do it. In this booklet, the Jell-O Girl tells readers that she’s hosting a party and wants to serve her favorite dessert, Jell-O. The booklet includes the Jell-O Girl’s favorite party recipes and describes tips every hostess should know.

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Back cover for the recipe booklet, “Polly Put the Kettle On We’ll All Make Jell-O,” 1924 THF294438

Heavy advertising contributed to Jell-O’s success. For some marketing campaigns, Jell-O enlisted prominent artists, including Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, who designed the image featured here. 


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Page from recipe booklet, “Jell-O Secrets for the Automatic Refrigerator,” 1929 THF294522

Although Jell-O became known as “America’s Most Famous Dessert,” it was also suggested as an ingredient in appetizers, molded vegetable salads, and entrées.

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Cover and page from the recipe booklet, “New Jell-O Recipes Made with the New Flavor Lime,” Circa 1930 THF294532

In 1897, Jell-O was sold in four flavors: Strawberry, Raspberry, Orange, and Lemon. By 1906, the Genesee Pure Food Company introduced Cherry and Chocolate, with Peach following soon after. Lime Jell-O debuted in 1930.

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Page from the recipe booklet, “Polly Put the Kettle On We’ll All Make Jell-O,” 1924 THF294430Jell-O became a sensation, with factories producing over 1,200 packages per minute by 1924.

By 1923, Jell-O sales had far surpassed the Genesee Pure Food Company’s other ventures, prompting the company to formally change its name to the Jell-O Company. Two years later, in 1925, the Jell-O Company Inc., was sold to Postum Cereal Company, Inc., which would later become part of the large conglomerate General Foods Corporation.

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Her favorite Jell-O recipe is for what her mother calls “Raspberry Fluff,” made with cottage cheese, Cool Whip, and a dry Raspberry Jell-O package.

advertising, Jell-o

In the last third of the 19th century, an unprecedented variety of consumer goods and services flooded the American market. Advertisers, armed with new methods of color printing, bombarded potential customers with trade cards. Americans enjoyed and often saved the vibrant little advertisements. We’ve just finished digitizing over 800 trade cards from The Henry Ford’s collection, including this example promoting a theatrical event. Visit our collections site to read the back, which promises “a Gorgeous Pagent [sic], Bewildering to the Mind and Dazzling to the Senses.”

Thanks to this week's co-author Saige Jedele, Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.

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I have a long-standing fascination with large advertising posters. The collections of The Henry Ford include hundreds of these colorful graphics. As I study them I always wonder about their original purpose.

It starts in the nineteenth century when printers developed a lithograph method that produced brightly colored posters. Lithography, invented around 1798, is a process of printing from a flat surface with a greasy image holding the ink and a wet blank area resisting the ink. It originally produced a monochrome print of a dark image on light paper. In the 1840s printers experimented with using different ink colors and multiple printing surfaces to make chromatic images on one sheet of paper.

Manufacturers and companies quickly adopted the colorful new poster style to promote their goods and services. The posters were glued to building walls and fences, and hung in store displays where they readily attracted the attention of passersby. Companies hired printers who worked with artists to create designs to advertise the products.

This early poster's design, above, is in the style of American romantic landscape paintings of the time. Advertising the Buckeye brand of agricultural equipment manufactured by Aultman, Miller & Company of Akron, Ohio, it exemplifies an American ideal of the machine in the garden. The artist, F. Crow, made this image for the printer, White & Brayley of Buffalo, New York, about 1875. It probably hung in the office of a local equipment distributor where it offered visitors the pleasure of an appealing rural scene.

(THF96683 / 92.157.1) Color Lithograph Poster of Dauntless Sewing Machine, about 1885

This next poster promotes sewing machines made by the Dauntless Manufacturing Company of Norwalk, Ohio, about 1885. The figure is Columbia, a feminine personification of the United States. A complex and detailed image, it surely captured observers' attention and deserved a pause for a long look.

(THF96678 / 84.15.2.1) Color Lithograph Poster of D.M. Ferry & Co.’s Standard Seeds, 1898

This delightful image of four boys eating watermelon epitomizes a summer’s harvest. The attention-grabbing subject matter likely helped to sell the seeds grown by D.M. Ferry & Company of Detroit, Mich. Distributed nationally, the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company of New York, NY, printed the poster in 1898.

(THF96676 / 33.388.34) Color Lithograph Poster for Dr. Price’s Food, about 1910

A complex scene including a seemingly ordinary dining table includes symbolic personalities to gain attention for this unusual food combination of wheat and celery. Columbia, appearing again, serves Uncle Sam and a robust young woman in this poster for Dr. Price’s healthy food products. The U.S. Lithograph Company of Cincinnati, Ohio and New York, NY, made this “Russell-Morgan Print” about 1900-1905.

Over a century ago, changes were taking place in America that made national selling of products advantageous, and manufacturers sought to capture attention with catchy brands and appealing images. Changes in milling of grain lengthened the shelf life so storekeepers far from the original mill were sure to have a good product to sell, and the extensive railroad system allowed rapid and consistent delivery.

(THF96675 / 33.388.5) Color Lithograph Poster for Ben-Hur Flour, about 1900-1905

The team of racing horses coming toward the viewer in the Ben-Hur poster certainly gives a sense of drama. It may be hard to connect the image to the wheat flour product, but the arresting image was meant to attract the attention of potential buyers walking along a town’s street. The Royal Milling Company of Minneapolis, Minn., and Great Falls, Mont., had this colorful poster printed in the early 1900s. At this time, Ben-Hur was a popular motif because the theatrical producers Klaw & Erlanger had made a play in 1899 based on the best-selling American novel written by Lew Wallace in 1880.

(THF96677 / 33.388.54) Color Lithograph Poster for Scotch Oats, 1899.

Like the Ben-Hur poster of the same era, this view of a Scotsman in his Highland kilt gives a sense of adventure and surely attracted the attention of potential buyers on foot. This colorful poster was printed in 1899 with the catchy slogan "Scotch Oats for Brain and Brawn." At this time, stories about the medieval Scottish fight for independence, like Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, were popular in the United States.

(THF96681 / 89.0.542.5) Color Lithograph Poster for Patterson Aviator of Detroit, about 1911-1916.

This poster of the Wright brothers' Model B biplane has instant appeal. It happens to advertise the aerial entertainment services of the Patterson Aviators of Detroit in the 1910s. I am particularly struck by the fact that in less than ten years, entrepreneurs were using the fruit of Wilbur and Orville Wright's invention begun with their first successful flight in 1903. It grew from an impossible dream to a part of our everyday life. Daredevil fliers in the 1910s and 1920s, also called barnstormers, showed people the possibility of flight by creating high-risk, exciting spectacles soaring through the sky. Crowds flocked to numerous public events like circuses, county fairs, and air shows, eagerly shelling out their hard-earned money simply for the privilege of watching these high-flying acrobatics.

(THF96682 / 91.0.93.24) Color Lithograph Poster for The Spirit of ’18, 1918.

During the First World War, artists widely used an innovative advertising technique for posters that moved away from a factual depiction of a product’s material or event’s subject to an emphasis on appealing to the viewer’s emotions. On the surface, this poster promotes American citizens growing food in their home garden so the farmers’ produce could feed U.S. soldiers training and fighting the war in Europe. The emotional appeal is connecting the effort of home food gardening to patriotic sacrifices akin to those of the American Revolutionary War soldiers. The artist, William McKee, used the familiar motif from the painting The Spirit of ’76, made in 1876 by Archibald M. Willard for the Centennial of the American Revolution. The poster’s title, The Spirit of ’18, reinforced this popular patriotic theme. This poster was made for the U.S. Food Administration in 1918.

(THF96680 / 86.185.38.2) Color Lithograph Poster for Have Fun with a Ford, about 1925

This poster advertises the R& L Time Payment Plan to buy a Ford Model T Tudor Coupe. The National Bond & Investment Company probably offered this payment plan, still a novel concept, through independent Ford dealerships. This double-sided poster was designed to hang in a window and be seen from indoors and outside. Although we do not know the printer for this poster created about 1925, the artist's signature prominently appears in the lower right corner: J.W. Pondelicek.

(THF96679 / 86.15.5.2) Color Lithograph of For Your Summer Vacation, New York World’s Fair, 1939

The artist of this poster, Bob Smith, combined modern and patriotic themes of this world’s fair held near the end of the Great Depression and at the beginning of the Second World War. Promoting the New York World’s Fair theme, "The World of Tomorrow," the Grand Opening on April 30, 1939, harkened back to the country’s beginnings by celebrating the 150th anniversary of George Washington's first presidential inauguration held in New York City in 1789. The beautiful young woman portrayed in front of the world fair’s modern Trylon and Perisphere buildings wears fashionable clothes in the American patriotic colors of red, white and blue.

These posters and many more are part of our museum's online collections. We also offer quality reproductions for a selection of posters on The Henry Ford ArteHouse and The Henry Ford SM/ART Editions. These posters, eye-catching time capsules of popular design, delight and instruct us today. What are your favorites?

Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints, is continually fascinated with the museum’s more than 1 million historical graphics.

advertising, antique posters, posters