The secret history of the original gelatin dessert that set the stage for Jell-O, Tootsie Rolls, and the convenience food revolution
Credit: Photo by Kat Kinsman

Sometimes in the course of human events, we must remember those who came before us, the original products that were one-upped by better-named upstart competitors. Before Oreo cookies, there were Hydrox cookies. Before Pop-Tarts, there were Country Squares. And before Jell-O, there was Bromangelon, the first successful instant dessert gelatin powder.

Bromangelon, which hit store shelves around 1895, has now largely been forgotten. But it was an early spark in the mid-20th century explosion of packaged convenience foods, and it laid the groundwork for two of the best-known sweets of the past few generations: Jell-O and Tootsie Rolls.

The curiously dubbed treat was the brainchild of New York candy maker Leo Hirschfeld, an Austrian immigrant, and was sold in several flavors: lemon, orange, raspberry, strawberry, peach, cherry, and chocolate.

Credit: Photo by Kat Kinsman

It’s unclear why Hirschfeld chose the name Bromangelon—or Bro-man-gel-on, as it was sometimes advertised to make the inexplicable name either more pronounceable or more memorable. Representatives from Stern and Saalberg Co., the manufacturer, claimed the name meant “angel’s food” while they were exhibiting the product in Boston in 1895. The 1903 American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, however, reported a seemingly undesirable Greek etymology almost the complete opposite: “What is Bromangelon? ... A foul spirit. From bromos, a stench, and angellus, a messenger, angel, or spirit.” It’s also possible that there is no explanation and it’s simply a nonsense word.

But wherever its immensely unwieldy name came from, Bromangelon was, by and large, delicious. Recipes ranged from the classical roast turkey with cherry Bromangelon to Good Housekeeping Magazine’s elaborate and gag-inducing Bromangelon-soaked “Shredded Wheat Biscuit Jellied Apple Sandwich.” Bromangelon popped up on restaurant menus, cookbooks, and newspapers across the country. But its most important foothold was in the home.

Today, gelatin seems relatively unexciting; jiggly red cubes of Jell-O and gloppy salads are a vestige of decades-old advertisements and elementary school lunches. But even into the Victorian era, gelatin was expensive and arduous to make, since chefs had to extract it themselves from collagen in animal bones or, at the very least, purify sheets of the stuff. Powdered gelatin was invented in 1845, but it never caught on. Its inventor was more interested in making glue, and it didn’t taste very good, so he never marketed it. Making a gelatin dessert or an aspic was regarded as a fancy feat of food chemistry, an elaborate and indulgent curiosity for the wealthiest socialites.

Credit: Photo via Boston Public Library

Cheap, tasty, instant Bromangelon, one of the first easy-to-prepare convenience foods, changed that. As industrialization drew thousands of Americans from the rural farms to urban factories, from being producers to being consumers, time-strapped home cooks sought to get impressive-looking dishes on the table more easily. Bromangelon was just as quick as it was stunning, the ultimate two-fer.

When people first encountered this miracle food when it debuted in the 1890s, they were awed by the abrupt democratization of something that had previously seemed so inaccessible. Suddenly, with only the advertised “2 minutes time,” a home cook could transform a simple 10- or 15-cent package of Bromangelon into a breakfast, salad, side dish, or dessert that looked significantly more sophisticated than a powdered mix.

Around the turn of the century, competing gelatin brands such as Tryphosa, JellyCon, and Jell-O had caught on. In 1904, Jell-O launched a marketing campaign with illustrated ads, freebies, and a kid-centric message, and it was an epic success. Sales skyrocketed to about $250,000 a year, or about $7 million in today’s dollars—heights Bromangelon could never reach. Outplayed, Bromangelon slowly faded away by the 1930s.

Leo Hirschfeld himself was no postscript to confectionery history, however. The introduction of chocolate Bromangelon in the early 1900s might have been a precursor to his next move, the invention that would make his career: the Tootsie Roll.

Credit: Photo via Boston Public Library

Hirschfeld found that if he baked chocolate taffy after pulling it, it became chewier and less sticky. He named his product “Tootsie Roll” after his daughter’s nickname, and Stern and Saalberg applied for the trademark in late 1908. (The official founding legend of Tootsie Roll claims the candy was invented in Hirschfeld’s private shop in 1896, but this is likely a myth, according to candy scholar Samira Kawash.) When representatives from Stern and Saalberg showed up in October 1907 in Barre, Vermont, to demonstrate Bromangelon, they had one more product with them: “Tootsies,” which the Barre Daily Times reported “is made from Bromangelon.”

This leads me to wonder whether this was an early Bromangelon-based prototype of the Tootsie Roll, although today’s do not contain gelatin—whether this was a clue into Hirschfeld’s inventive mind. But what can be said for certain is that Bromangelon put Hirschfeld on the map and gave him influence that came in handy when he caught that even bigger break. And although Bromangelon succumbed to the powerful forces of Jell-O, it primed America’s palate—and pocketbook—for the wave of convenience foods to come in the 20th century.