Dining with Antiques – Gelatin Molds

An old German copper fish mold. Collectors like to display their various molds by hanging them on kitchen walls or from central pot racks and copper and tin molds are usually the oldest.

Gelatin—the translucent thickening agent made from animal collagen—has been in use as a food additive for thousands of years. It was undoubtedly discovered while boiling bones and probably first used as a sealant to protect fish and other perishable foods with an airtight glaze. By as early as the 14th century, it was molded into elaborate shapes and served as a main dinner attraction, usually including finely-chopped meat mixed with cream and spices.

Extracting, boiling, straining and clarifying collagen to make gelatin was a long and tedious process. By the second half of the 19th century, several companies were producing dehydrated versions that greatly streamlined preparation time but were not very popular. In 1894, Charles Knox introduced his “sparkling granulated” version and in 1896 his wife, Rose, wrote a 32-page recipe booklet promoting the “Gelatine” product. The booklets were distributed by the millions—a marketing technique that made Knox gelatin a famous household name. A year or so later, Mary Wait created a mixture of powdered gelatin, fruit flavors and sugar she named Jell-O. The dessert mix didn’t take off until 1904, when Frank Woodward armed his Genesee Pure Food Company salesmen with free Jell-O cookbooks. In both cases, the new recipes sold the products.

A vintage melon-shaped mold made of tin.

Along with the popularity of easy-to-make gelatin came a plethora of shaped molds. Many were cross-over molds, used for ice cream, custards and puddings, as well as gelatins. Fish molds held salmon and tuna mousse, often studded with slices of hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers and olives to replicate eyes and scales. Molds shaped like fruits housed jewel-colored desserts and frothy chiffons. Vegetable molds were used for shimmery aspics, showcasing crunchy salad ingredients. And ring molds facilitated the ability to create uniform portion sizes. Many shapes also celebrated the holidays.

Collectors like to display their various molds by hanging them on kitchen walls or from central pot racks. Copper and tin molds are usually the oldest. Brass is often collected because it displays well. Glass is popular because the contents can be seen during preparation, but gelatin always sets faster in metal molds. Modern plastic and aluminum molds are inexpensive and come in a wider variety of shapes, but they do not have the patina or heft of the older molds.

The first Knox gelatin recipe book, published in 1896. These recipe books, passed out in bulk by salesmen, helped make the mass-produce gelatin powder a popular product.

There are thousands of molded gelatin recipes available and some are very elaborate, including detailed layering and intricate designs. But it’s always the most fun to find the very earliest recipes to see how they differ from today’s tastes. Recipes prior to 1896 called for home-made gelatin stock (from calves’ feet) or boxed instant brands that are no longer available. Here are two of the oldest that can still be made today—one from the very first Knox cookbook (when the gelatins were called “jellies”) and one from the first Jell-O cookbook (when the only flavors were orange, lemon, strawberry and raspberry).


Tomato Jelly
From Knox’s “Gelatine’s Dainty Desserts for Dainty People,” 1896.

Take 1 can of tomatoes, or, in the tomato season, 8 medium-sized tomatoes. Stew them with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon cloves, 1 small onion, 1 bay leaf, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons vinegar. Cook until tomatoes are soft.

Dissolve 1 tablespoon Knox gelatin in ½ cup cold water.

Pass tomatoes through a sieve to remove the seeds and pour over the gelatin while hot.

Pour into a mold and place on ice to set. [Today you can use a refrigerator].

When cold, turn out on a platter and garnish with lettuce leaves. Pour mayonnaise dressing over the jelly. Very nice to serve with cold meats.

Ginger Ale Salad
From Jell-O, 1904

Pour ½ cup of boiling water over 1 package of lemon Jell-O. Set in hot water until thoroughly dissolved, stirring all the time.

Cool and add 1 ½ cups ginger ale. Set in cold place until it begins to thicken.

Then stir in ¼ cup finely cut nutmeats, ¼ cup finely cut celery, 1 cup finely cut assorted fruits (pineapple, orange, apple, cherries or grapes) and 1 tablespoon finely cut crystallized ginger.

Pour into a mold and chill.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books. “Dining with Antiques” is an ongoing feature in which she highlights usable collectible dinnerware, along with vintage recipes.


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