Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New York City's Beloved Citizens

Jell-O Week

This past Monday (Feb. 10) marked the Buzz of Jell-O Week. Celebrated the second full week of February, JELL-O week is held in honor of “American’s Most Famous Dessert.” In January 2001, the Utah Senate declared JELL-O® gelatin the “Official State Snack” of the Beehive State. To celebrate, an annual “JELL-O® Week” was proclaimed by Governor Michael O. Leavitt. Although debated by some, the "Jell-O Capital of America," claims residents eat twice as much Jell-O per capita than the average American. At Confessions of a Mormon Foodie, John reveals the "Utah Mormon Jell-O Culture"

Utahans love Jell-O, and it's become a huge part of Utah Mormon Culture. (If they knew what it was made from I don't think they'd be so thrilled, but you never know.) I don't think it's a coincidence that the boundaries of the Jell-O Belt covers Utah, and the areas outside of Utah, that were generally colonized by the Mormon Pioneers.

Gelatinous Substances

The chemical basis of jelly is gelatin. The purest form of all, however, is isinglass, a substance obtained from the swim bladder of fish, especially sturgeon. Isinglass, is the purest form of animal gelatin. It is a tough, semi-transparent silvery-white substance which is prepared from the sounds (air or swim bladders) of certain fish. The best-quality isinglass comes from the Russian sturgeon. Isinglass also comes from carp, catfish, cod, hake, and other kinds of fish. Prior to the inexpensive production of gelatin, isinglass was used in confectionery desserts such as fruit jelly, complex "jelly moulds", very popular during the Victorian era, and blancmange. In 1795, a Scottish engineer and inventor William Murdoch invented a cheap substitute for isinglass using cod. This was extensively used in Britain in place of Russian isinglass. All forms of connective tissue can be made to yield some form of gelatin. At one time, glue was a crude form of the substance obtained from hide-clippings, and ordinary commercial gelatin was simply a purified form derived from the same source. The connective tissues of young animals are especially rich in gelatin-yielding material. Veal, for example, contains 4 to 5 per cent, of connective tissue, and is therefore a favorite basis for making soup stocks. Isinglass finings are used extensively as a processing aid in the British brewing industry to accelerate the fining, or clarification, of beer. Another beer fining agent, which is suitable for vegetarians is Irish Moss also called carrageen. Carrageen is an edible seaweed, usually purplish, found on the Atlantic coast of Europe and North America. Carrageen is the source of carrageenan, used as a thickener and emulsifier, it is commonly used as a thickener and stabilizer in milk products such as ice cream and other processed foods. Carrageen and agar-agar are also used in Asia for gelatin-like deserts such as almond jelly. Irish moss is also a beverage in the Caribbean. At the Caribbean Food Emporium, I found a recipe for an Irish Moss Drink. Most Irish Moss Drinks are served chilled. They are very thick and sometimes thought to have aphrodisiac qualities. I also found a delicious looking Mango Cheesecake recipe that is topped with a Mango Glaze created with the stems of Irish Moss. Curious? Take a look see...here. The chief physical peculiarity of gelatin is its capability of dissolving in boiling water, and subsequently setting into a jelly on cooling. It is remarkable how weak a solution is capable of doing this. Even with as little as 1 per cent a solution can be set. I should note, the modern product is processed so exhaustively, it is no longer considered an animal product.

Gelatinous Homage

Jell-O cookbookJell-O cookbook

Now that we are totally confused about the chemical basis of gelatin, I think it is high time we stick to the subject at hand, Peter Cooper. I should be ashamed of myself. Up until researching this post, I had no idea that Peter Cooper of Jell-O fame was one and the same as Peter Cooper of New York City fame. Now mind you, I have known the fairy tale surrounding Jell-O almost as long as I have been collecting cookbooks. Not that I am a gelatiniana hound or anything. Is there such a word I wonder? IMHO, the real hero today is Peter Cooper. If not for Peter Cooper's "patent (US Patent 4084) for powdered gelatin derived from the bones of geese," colored gelatin may have slipped into oblivion. There is a vast amount of information available about the amazing life of Peter Cooper and so today, on the anniversary of his birth, I would like to dish a small homage to him.

"The production of wealth is not the work of any one man, and the acquisition of great fortunes is not possible without the co-operation of multitudes of men."~Peter Cooper~

Peter Cooper was born in New York City, on February 12, 1791. Peter Cooper grew up in Peekskill, N.Y. His maternal grandfather, John Campbell, was Mayor of New York, and deputy quartermaster-general during the Revolutionary War, in which his father also served as a lieutenant. Peter Cooper's father was a respectable hatter and as soon as he was old enough he worked in the trade of hatmaking. With a limited education, he worked as a coachmaker's apprentice, cabinet maker, grocer and was involved in the manufacturing and selling of cloth-shearing machines. Cooper grew to become a self-taught engineer, a prolific inventor, a successful entrepreneur and a philanthropist. His extraordinary inventive capacity produced things like a cutting device for lawn mowers, a torpedo boat, the first blast furnace, a compressed air engine for ferry boats, a water-powered device to move barges down the newly-constructed Erie Canal, a machine to grind and polish plate glass, and a musical cradle. In 1854, with his brother Thomas, he manufactured the first iron structural beams which hold up the famous dome of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. He once ran for President, in 1876.

In 1808 Cooper was apprenticed to a New York coachmaker. Although he showed promise in this trade, he declined to take the loan necessary to set himself up in the business. Instead he took a job in Hempstead, Long Island with a manufacturer of cloth-shearing machines. There he obtained a license to make and sell the machines in New York. He then designed, patented, and manufactured an improved version of the machine. He recalled that "the first money I received for the sale of my machines was from Mr. [Matthew] Vassar, of Poughkeepsie, who afterwards founded that noble institution for female education, called Vassar College." source

Peter Cooper is the founding father of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, (the nation's first free institution of higher learning) which was chartered in 1859. Lot by lot he bought the property on which Cooper Union stands; some time before the actual construction of the building he purchased the material and stored it on the site. The Cooper Institute is the result of the recollections of Cooper's early days as a workingman's son who studied alone evenings by the light of a tallow dip. He had less than a year of formal schooling. It was founded on the belief that education should be, as Cooper expressed it, "free as water and air." Students were admitted in the order of application, but, everyone before their admission, had to state that they were obliged to earning a living. The Cooper Union offered its first course at night, to students ages sixteen to fifty-nine.The Cooper Institute was one of the first colleges to offer a free education to the working class, children, and women. The free Reading Room and Library was kept open until ten at night, admitting both women and men. Today, The Cooper Union offers public programs for the "civic, cultural and practicable enrichment of New York City."

My design is to establish this institution, in the hope that unnumbered youth will here receive the inspiration of truth in ail its native power and beauty, and find in it a source of perpetual pleasure to spread its transforming influence throughout the world.

"Believing in and hoping for such result, I desire to make this institution contribute in every way to aid the efforts of youth to acquire useful knowledge, and to find and fill that place in this community where their capacity and talents can be usefully employed with the greatest possible advantage to themselves and the community in which they live." ~
Peter Cooper~
Let those who think it an easy thing to do good, ponder the lesson taught by Mr. Cooper's experience in building the Institute. He modeled the Union upon several polytechnic schools in Paris, the Birkbeck Institute in London, and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. The mere saving and donating the money for the purpose was but a fraction of the work performed. Great difficulties had to be overcome in designing so unique a building. Mr. Cooper was determined that it should be fire-proof, consequently a separate foundery had to be erected to forge the iron used in the construction; when this was done, the estimated outlay fell short twenty- five thousand dollars of the actual cost. (countless other obstacles had to be overcome, and finally the Institute was completed, at an immense cost over its estimated expense. In fact, it took all Mr. Cooper's money to finish it, and he was comparatively a poor man when all the bills were paid; but, as if to reward his sacrifices, his business has since improved, until he is now richer than ever.source

On February 27, 1860, the school's Great Hall became the site of a dramatic speech by Abraham Lincoln opposing Stephen A. Douglas on the question of federal power to regulate and limit the spread of slavery to the federal territories and new States. The speech is now referred to as the Cooper Union Address.

Peter Cooper worked closely with the minister, Henry Whitney Bellows, on the United States Sanitary Commission and to promote New York educational reform. While serving as the Assistant Alderman for the New York Common Council, he led the Croton project to improve the city's water supply by damming the Croton River in Westchester County, New York. When the Common Council merged with the education board, he served as a trustee for over twenty years and led the campaign of the Free Schools Society, organized to give free instruction to New York's children. He opposed public subsidization of Roman Catholic schooling, saying that no public funds should be used for schools promulgating a religious doctrine. source

The Cooper Union was not the only institution of higher education Peter Cooper subsidized. At 87 he traveled south to help fund the Cooper-Limestone Institute.

Springs. “Limestone College of Gaffney grew out of Limestone Springs Female High School (1845). It was located on the Limestone Springs Hotel property, purchased by Rev, Thomas and William Curtis, Baptist clergymen, who operated the school from 1845 to 1863, and after the [Civil] War from 1866 to 1872. The school was reopened in 1873 under Major Bomar and Captain Petty, with Peter Cooper of New York as a generous contributor. In 1880 as Cooper-Limestone Institute for Young Ladies, the school was placed under control of the Baptists of Spartanburg County, to which religious group Peter Cooper had donated his share of the property. In 1899 the present title, Limestone College, was adopted. source

In 1828, Cooper began building and designing the first protoytpe locomotive in the United States at his iron foundry, in Baltimore. The Tom Thumb, demonstrated the potential of steam-powered rail transport. Later, he turned his entrepreneurial skills to successful ventures in real estate, insurance, telegraphy and railroads. In the late 1850s, when Cooper was a principal investor and first president of the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Co. and the North American Telegraph Company, the firm undertook one of the 19th century's most monumental technical enterprises—laying the first trans-Atlantic cable telegraph. Here are a few lines from The History of New York State a personal website by Dr. James Sullivan

In 1857 the attention of New York was largely engrossed by the enterprise of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean. The great project had loomed into the realm of possibility gradually. Cables had been laid across bays and smaller seas in various parts of the world, and had worked successfully. It needed the sort of tasks with which Americans had become familiar to contemplate as practical the enterprise of bridging 3,000 miles of turbulent ocean. The leading spirits in the enterprise were Cyrus W. Field, and Peter Cooper, who went to Europe and enlisted the support of a number of capitalists and scientific men.

Gelatinous Subjects

Peter Cooper may have made his fortune with a glue factory and an iron foundry but, as his means increased, his enthusiastic interest in the welfare of the skilled laborer did not diminish. Peter Cooper had a number of patents and inventions to his credit including, the first American patent for the manufacture of gelatin. He subsequently established a number of other patents for its manufacturing and established manufacturing standards for its production.

In 1845, he obtained a patent for the manufacture of gelatin. Gelatin itself was discovered much earlier, having been referenced by a French researcher in the 17th century who created it by boiling animal bones. The gelatinous substance that separates from the bones is pure protein, and today it has a multitude of uses in the food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and photography industries. While Cooper patented its manufacture, he did little to commercialize it. He packaged it for sales to cooks, but there was little interest. Some time later, around 1895, he sold his patent to Pearl B. Wait, a cough syrup manufacturer. Repackaged and renamed, Jell-O was born. source

Since today is also the anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, another revered figure, I thought it would be interesting to "connect" the two. I discovered, among Abraham Lincoln’s favorite dishes was scalloped oysters. During his aspirations to become the next President of the United States, he served thousands of oysters at rallies in Illinois. He popularized oyster roasts as a way to get voters to political rallies. Oyster parties became such "the rage," that the seemingly perishable oyster had to be somehow be transported from New York Harbor to American tables. Here is a snippet from an interesting article published in the New York Times in 2001.

In the first half of the 19th century, oyster wagons with fresh horses and ice carried New York oysters deep into the continent. New York-style oyster bars were featured in most Midwestern cities. Abraham Lincoln, campaigning in Illinois, gave oyster parties. Oyster wagons and ice stations were not new; the Romans had transported Brittany oysters to Rome the same way. But in the 1840's, the railroads brought transport of perishable food into a new age. source

It appears that Lincoln was also a fan of gelatin. At the Lincoln Log, I found at least 3 documents attesting to the fact that Lincoln often purchased "Red Gelatine," "Cooper's Isinglass," and cream of tartar at his local drug store. I did find a reference to Cooper's Isinglass in a book available at the Google book site. The title of the book is The Year-book of Facts in Science published in 1844. (pg 226)

The Daguerreotype image in all its forms may be transferred by any copying process to other suitable surfaces. In other words, it may be printed from. To carry this process into effect, the operator proceeds as follows: The Daguerreotype, which he designs to copy, is to be covered with a thin film of gold in the usual way, care being taken that the film is neither too thick nor too thin. If it be too thick, the resulting copy is injured, and difficulties are more liable to arise in effecting the separation of the gelatinous coat; if too thin, the plate itself will suffer injury by having the figure torn off. A clear solution of isinglass is next to be prepared; it must be of such a consistency that a drop of it poured on a cold metallic plate will speedily set. Much of the success of the process depends on this solution being properly made. There is a substance in the market which goes under the name of Cooper's Isinglass, which I have found much better than any other for these purposes.

Okay, so what do we have to "connect"? We have Peter Cooper's gelatin, Abraham Lincoln's love of an American staple, oysters, and Valentine's Day in two days. Alright, I might be pushing it here but, oysters are quite popular in the aphrodisiac mind set. It is said that oysters are considered an aphrodisiac by some, partly because of the mythological story that the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite "sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell." Perhaps, the word aphrodisiac itself takes hold of the APHRO from the Goddess of Love. And, we all know the legend of Casanova, who ate dozens of oysters a day. With all of the "ingredients" assembled, let's explore Jellied Oysters. I mean really, what other time would a person have to actually peruse a recipe for jellied oysters. Amazingly enough, it was not that easy to find a recipe for jellied oysters. Jellied fish yes, jellied eels, yes. Goodness, I even found a recipe for Jellied Moose Nose! But, the only acceptable recipe I could find for this post was from another online Google book titled Culture and Cooking; Or: Art in the Kitchen published in 1881. (pg.41)

Jellied Fish is a favorite dish with many, and is very simple to prepare; it is also very ornamental. Take flounders or almost any flat fish that is cheapest at the time you require them. Clean and scrape them, cut them in small pieces, but do not cut off the fins; put them in a stew-pan with a few small button onions or one large one, a half teaspoonful of sugar, a glass of sherry, a dessert-spoonful of lemon juice, and a small bunch of parsley. To one large flounder put a quart of water, and if you are going to jelly oysters put in their liquor and a little salt. Stew long and slowly, skimming well; then strain, and if not perfectly clear clarify as elsewhere directed. (See if your stock jellies, by trying it on ice before you clarify.) Now take a mold, put in it pieces of cold salmon, eels that have been cooked, or oysters, the latter only just cooked enough in the stock to plump them ; pour a little of the jelly in the mold, then three or four half slices of lemon, then oysters or the cold fish, until the mold is near full, disposing the lemon so that it will be near the sides and decorate the jelly ; then pour the rest of the jelly over all and stand in boiling water for a few minutes, then put it in a cold place, on ice is best, for some hours. When about to serve, dip the mold in hot water, turn out on a dish, garnish with lettuce leaves or parsley and hard-boiled eggs. The latter may be introduced into the jelly cut in quarters if it is desired; very ornamental force-meat balls made bright green with spinach juice are also an improvement in appearance.

If you're anything like me, a luncheon of jellied fish is just not going to cut it for Valentine's Day. I'm more in praise of Cocoa, Cupids & Nightcaps, but, I feel the purpose of this post has been duly accomplished. As we celebrate "American’s Most Famous Dessert," we should include the fabric of it's humble beginnings with those who propelled it as an American staple. I'm sure the next time I am walking around the East Village, and stroll upon Cooper Square, I will make the connection. Consider this. Peter Cooper had deep religious convictions. When Peter Cooper died on April 4, 1883, "twelve thousand citizens passed by his coffin at All Souls Church. Robert Collyer, a Unitarian minister, gave the funeral address to a full house, while thousands more flooded the streets. Flags were lowered to half-mast and bells rang as Cooper's coffin was escorted to Brooklyn." The New York Herald recorded that no funeral in the memory of any living person could compare. One of the most beloved citizens of New York City in his time, Cooper inspired the charitable acts and civic responsibility of other tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, George Peabody, Matthew Vassar, and Ezra Cornell. His life furnishes a remarkable instance of a youthful ambition that came to fulfilment. While we are molding those gelatin alphabet letters for the children, at home, school or church, why not inspire the lesson by talking about it's creator, his humble beginnings, his dedicated hard work and the notion that all things are possible with a Jell-O state of mind from the state of Utah to the The Big Apple.

In 2006, Peter Cooper was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The National Inventors Hall of Fame is an organization that honors important inventors from the whole world. The only prerequisite of induction is being named an inventor on a US patent. As of 2007, there were 371 inductees. New inductee announcements are made in early February, around Inventor's Day. Inductees are chosen by a national panel of inventors and scientists.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame is a non-profit organization founded in 1973 by the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Associations. The organization hosts the Modern Marvels Invent Now Challenge, an annual contest for inventors nationwide, in collaboration with the United States Patent & Trademark Office, Time magazine and The History Channel. wiki

The statue of Peter Cooper in the small park at Third and Fourth Avenues, near Cooper Union was erected at the cost of $40,000. It was voted upon by the park board of New York in 1894 and the money was raised by the local population.

  • 1. Kraft Celebrates JELL-O® Week
  • 2. Confessions of a Mormon Foodie
  • 3. Isinglass @ Wiki
  • 4. Peter Cooper @ Rochester Steam Engine Library
  • 5. Peter Cooper @ Mit
  • 6. Peter Cooper @ wiki
  • 7. The Cooper Institute
  • 8. Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address
  • 9. Oysters: a Dish Fit to Be Served to a President
  • 10. Golden Age Radio Celebrates Jell-O (informative, decorative site)
  • 11. National Inventors Hall of Fame
  • 12. Tasteful Inventions


  1. I have a watercolor of the jell-o girl ... Do you know how I can trace its history? Thanks!

  2. Thanks for visiting. Off hand the only place I can think of is the Jell-O Museum. I may have the link on my Rose O'Neill post or perhaps, you could google it. The Museum is in New York.

    Sorry I couldn't be of more assistance:(


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