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The History of Jell-O Salad

Gelatin dishes date all the way back to Medieval Europe, but for most of history, they were reserved for the rich. While there were earlier formulations, Pearle Wait created the Jell-O brand of instant gelatin around 1897. Neatness, order, and ingenuity were prized in home economics around the turn of the century, and Jell-O salads provided the perfect vehicle for the trend, allowing food to be neatly encased and ingeniously presented while also stretching each portion. One of the first famous Jell-O salads was the “Perfection Salad” created by Mrs. John Cooke of New Castle, Pennsylvania; her creation took third prize in a cooking contest sponsored by Jell-O competitor Knox Gelatin. Jell-O was rationed during World War I but the popularity of gelatin salads soared in the interwar period and continued in the postwar period, when housewives were encouraged to create elaborate dishes like Jell-O salads. Many of these Jell-O salads used savory ingredients and the Jell-O brand even came out with savory flavors like celery, mixed vegetable, and Italian salad to accomodate the trend. In the 1970s and early 1980s, nutrition campaigns began to emphasize the importance of limiting sugar and savory Jell-O salads fell out of fashion in favor of tossed salads. Changing cultural trends also hastened the demise of the Jell-O salad: as more women entered the workforce, quick and convenient meals took precedence over time-consuming, impressive presentations. After Jell-O salads dipped in popularity, Jell-O and other gelatin brands returned to marketing their products for desserts only. Sweet Jell-O salads are no longer popular on the American Coasts, but they are still widely enjoyed in the rural Midwest and Deep South. Interestingly, savory Jell-O salads remain popular in Utah but are all but extinct in mainstream American cuisine.

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