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Jell-O Girls: A Family History

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A memoir that braids the evolution of one of America's most iconic branding campaigns with the stirring tales of the women who lived behind its façade - told by the inheritor of their stories. In 1899, Allie Rowbottom's great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in A A memoir that braids the evolution of one of America's most iconic branding campaigns with the stirring tales of the women who lived behind its façade - told by the inheritor of their stories. In 1899, Allie Rowbottom's great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege - but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments. More than 100 years after that deal was struck, Allie's mother Mary was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer, a disease that had also claimed her own mother's life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the "Jell-O curse" and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family's past, determined to understand the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Allie boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. JELL-O GIRLS is the liberation of that story. A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune, JELL-O GIRLS is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss. In crystalline prose Rowbottom considers the roots of trauma not only in her own family, but in the American psyche as well, ultimately weaving a story that is deeply personal, as well as deeply connected to the collective female experience.


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A memoir that braids the evolution of one of America's most iconic branding campaigns with the stirring tales of the women who lived behind its façade - told by the inheritor of their stories. In 1899, Allie Rowbottom's great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in A A memoir that braids the evolution of one of America's most iconic branding campaigns with the stirring tales of the women who lived behind its façade - told by the inheritor of their stories. In 1899, Allie Rowbottom's great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege - but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments. More than 100 years after that deal was struck, Allie's mother Mary was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer, a disease that had also claimed her own mother's life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the "Jell-O curse" and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family's past, determined to understand the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Allie boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. JELL-O GIRLS is the liberation of that story. A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune, JELL-O GIRLS is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss. In crystalline prose Rowbottom considers the roots of trauma not only in her own family, but in the American psyche as well, ultimately weaving a story that is deeply personal, as well as deeply connected to the collective female experience.

30 review for Jell-O Girls: A Family History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Aja Gabel

    This book is an utter phenomenon. You will start it and be unable to put it down. What Rowbottom accomplishes here is seamless: heartbreaking confession and cultural history, exacting personal observation and important feminist text for our times.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Leslie

    The book contains shocking, often poetic, imagery to describe the anguish that the author, her mother, and her grandmother endured due to the constraining culture of a "Jell-O" family. But here's the problem: what works as poetry, works less well when writing a memoir/autobiography, because events, locations, descriptions need to be accurate. There are a lot of things here that are inaccurate, begging the question: what really is true? Because I live in LeRoy (the setting for this book), there i The book contains shocking, often poetic, imagery to describe the anguish that the author, her mother, and her grandmother endured due to the constraining culture of a "Jell-O" family. But here's the problem: what works as poetry, works less well when writing a memoir/autobiography, because events, locations, descriptions need to be accurate. There are a lot of things here that are inaccurate, begging the question: what really is true? Because I live in LeRoy (the setting for this book), there is a lot that I know about its institutions, buildings, and history, and because of that, I went on searches to validate other things about the book. From the description of how Jell-O was made in LeRoy to the ending of America's first women's college, there are glaring errors. My full review is here: http://www.thedailynewsonline.com/bdn...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Biblio Files (takingadayoff)

    Many of the early reviews of The Jell-O Girls describe it as a feminist book. I wish I could see it that way, but I don't. There are several stories here fighting for attention in The Jell-O Girls. The one that takes up the most space is that of the author, her mother, and her grandmother, all heirs to the Jell-O fortune. In addition to the triple biography, there's the company history of Jell-O and the social history of how Jell-O was received and how it has been used and adapted over the years Many of the early reviews of The Jell-O Girls describe it as a feminist book. I wish I could see it that way, but I don't. There are several stories here fighting for attention in The Jell-O Girls. The one that takes up the most space is that of the author, her mother, and her grandmother, all heirs to the Jell-O fortune. In addition to the triple biography, there's the company history of Jell-O and the social history of how Jell-O was received and how it has been used and adapted over the years. That was pretty interesting, especially in the analysis of the advertising for Jell-O. And finally, there was a third story about a group of schoolgirls in 2009 near the Jell-O factory, who came down with odd medical symptoms that could not be explained other than the usual cop-out of "mass hysteria." I found this the least compelling of the threads. In the memoir/biography sections, the author was trying to address a family myth about a curse that afflicts the Jell-O men. She set out to show that the curse was also, or perhaps only, on the Jell-O women. The curse seemed to be poor health as well as the burden of too much money and not enough purpose. It's hard to see how these afflictions were unique to Jell-O heirs, since many people have poor health or lack purpose in life. Rowbottom decided that the curse was actually patriarchy. The women in the family were held back by the men. Well, once again, this hardly seems unique to Jell-O heirs. So, a mixed bag with some parts more interesting than others. (Thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown & Company for a digital review copy.)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    This is less about the history of Jello and the struggles of feminism and more about the many woes of a wealthy and destructive family. Blaming all misfortune on a "curse" and the patriarchy came across as dull and self indulgent. I found myself rolling my eyes more often than not. I had to skim the last 50+ pages. The writing was repetitive and lacked self awareness. No recommendation from me.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    Jell-O Girls AKA The Patriarchy Is terrible Even IF You Are A Rich White Lady I was expecting either the dark underbelly to the wholesome Jell-O company or some great family drama about the creators of Jell-O, but what I got was the story of three woman who came into Jell-O money despite not ever having anything to really do with the company. Also, they were miserable because the patriarchy is terrible. The first woman had kids and didn't find motherhood rewarding. She then dies early. Her daught Jell-O Girls AKA The Patriarchy Is terrible Even IF You Are A Rich White Lady I was expecting either the dark underbelly to the wholesome Jell-O company or some great family drama about the creators of Jell-O, but what I got was the story of three woman who came into Jell-O money despite not ever having anything to really do with the company. Also, they were miserable because the patriarchy is terrible. The first woman had kids and didn't find motherhood rewarding. She then dies early. Her daughter believes in the Jell-O curse for a while only to discover that it's just small town oppression. She is groomed by her older cousin and looses her virginity to him, is never fully allowed to come to terms with her mother's sudden death, is cheated on by her husband, and eventually dies after many battles with cancer. Our narrator is her daughter. She is trying to figure out how to deal with all that she has inherited from these two women. Their silence, grief, secrets, and pain. The one thing I really enjoyed was how the writer used the inception of Jell-O, and its use of advertising to act as a sort of yard stick for not only the company, but also America and the plight of women. Enjoy this book with your favorite Jell-O creation.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Erin Farmer

    Do not recommend. I love a good family drama, but this was snoozeville. This is the actual story of the Jell-O dynasty apparently. The women are "cursed." ZZZZzzzzzzZZZZZzzz The author also did the narration and nearly put me to sleep. If you read this one, I don't recommend the audio.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Cathie

    I was looking forward to this read about the history of jell-o for my food writing blog. However, my expectations were cut short as I began to read. This is more of a memoir about a family stricken with illness in its many forms. It was a bit too depressing for me. There are bits about jell-o: marketing efforts including the Crosby scandal, and where jell-o has and is today, for example, in the hospital setting. There's always jell-o on the menu... I wasn’t expecting a huge portion of the book to I was looking forward to this read about the history of jell-o for my food writing blog. However, my expectations were cut short as I began to read. This is more of a memoir about a family stricken with illness in its many forms. It was a bit too depressing for me. There are bits about jell-o: marketing efforts including the Crosby scandal, and where jell-o has and is today, for example, in the hospital setting. There's always jell-o on the menu... I wasn’t expecting a huge portion of the book to be devoted towards the family curse and cancer. Perhaps I could've read the blurb, that it is more about the curse...even though it was prior to the family buying the patent. Thank you Little Brown for the ARC. Wished there was more about jell-o, but this is more of a memoir. And one memoir readers would enjoy.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    What the heck is going on here? This book is all over the place. I gave up.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Elaine

    After reading the Jell-O Girls, I think the author and her mother were victims of what is known as a self fulfilling prophecy. The author's mother, Mary, was told about a curse that befell the men in the family. Naturally, when bad things happened to her, she became convinced it was due to the curse. Not because she was surrounded by predatory men and perverts. Not because she was too afraid to speak up and acknowledge her muteness and lack of initiative. We all make mistakes. We're human. No sha After reading the Jell-O Girls, I think the author and her mother were victims of what is known as a self fulfilling prophecy. The author's mother, Mary, was told about a curse that befell the men in the family. Naturally, when bad things happened to her, she became convinced it was due to the curse. Not because she was surrounded by predatory men and perverts. Not because she was too afraid to speak up and acknowledge her muteness and lack of initiative. We all make mistakes. We're human. No shame in that. But I can't sympathize with a person who is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the mistakes and/or choices she or he made of their own volition and hold themselves accountable. The author spends an egregious amount of time trying to convince us that Jell-o is to blame for the misfortunes her mother and grandmother suffered that I began to wonder if she was really trying to persuade us or herself? Blaming the rigid conservative community in which they lived and grew up in, their patriarchal values and ideals and being forced to conform to them even as Mary and, later the author herself, continually sought a man for approval, validation and to boost their lack of self esteem Repetitive dialogue about the patriarchy and how Jell-o marketing contributed to those conformist beliefs yet Mary has no problems being an artist and living off the proceeds of her inheritance Mary is stricken with cancer and blames the curse because she's obviously never heard of BAD GENETICS. YOU HAVE THEM. The prose slogs and tended to sound self-indulgent, almost self-serving at times, as the author kept trying to remind the reader that “Jell-o is evil even though we made Scrooge McDuck money off it and lived quite well on it.” I have no doubt that the marketing for the famous brand was biased and sexist (what a shock!) and that the author and her family were troubled and damaged. But you know what? So's most of us. No one comes from a Norman Rockwell painting. Every family has issues, drama, tragedy and secrets. It's how you deal with it that defines who you are, not by placing the blame on a foodstuff and ignoring the poor choices you made. The last 70 pages of the book was an agonizing recap of Mary's relapse and her death. I skimmed it. My advice: skip this book and don't eat Jell-o. It's full of preservatives. Eat Cheetos instead! You don't have to make it!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Vara

    As a born and bred Mississippian and feminist who was practically raised on Jello in its myriad forms - and is thrilled by its presence in little old lady salads on my rare trips home - I eagerly anticipated this book. I was incredibly disappointed. This could have been an engaging and successful essay in Vanity Fair complete with family photos. This did not need to be a book. I normally check books out of the Brooklyn library to save money. I actually bought a hardcover copy because the author h As a born and bred Mississippian and feminist who was practically raised on Jello in its myriad forms - and is thrilled by its presence in little old lady salads on my rare trips home - I eagerly anticipated this book. I was incredibly disappointed. This could have been an engaging and successful essay in Vanity Fair complete with family photos. This did not need to be a book. I normally check books out of the Brooklyn library to save money. I actually bought a hardcover copy because the author had a scheduled reading at Books Are Magic. By that time, I was 3/4 of the way through and couldn’t have sat through it without critiquing the work so I skipped out. The author is a decent wordsmith, but the book is disjointed and jumps from place to place. It felt very (and I’m saying this as a “basic white chick”) poor me, I’m a rich heiress and I feel bad about how my family got its money but I don’t have much wisdom to pass on and I’m not going to give up the privilege it gives me. No knocking using family money - don’t we all wish we could have that these days - but seriously, I don’t need to read an uninteresting book about your oppression by men. Yes, these women were placed in crappy situations by men but arguably their wealth prevented them from being put in even crappier, more oppressive places like the average female Jello consumer. I would have preferred a book by the African-American nanny’s children who (likely) felt neglected as their mom had to work round the clock for the Jello children. That would have been a far more interesting perspective. I can’t. So relieved it’s over and wondering why I make myself finish every book. Ahhhh.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sherrie

    This contains very little about Jello but does include every gory detail about the author’s grandmother and mother suffering through cancer, turning this into the saddest book ever. DNF

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tory

    Okay, so supposedly there's this curse on the family that owns the Jell-O copyright. Creepy! The men in the family all die because of...well, money? Like, they marry gold-diggers and then end up broke and commit suicide. Alrighty, sounds like less of a curse than just poor choices, but okay. Except the mother of the author of this book decides that SHE is going to be the first WOMAN that the curse affects. She's got a bad feeling about it or something. And then she gets cancer! A lot of cancer! Okay, so supposedly there's this curse on the family that owns the Jell-O copyright. Creepy! The men in the family all die because of...well, money? Like, they marry gold-diggers and then end up broke and commit suicide. Alrighty, sounds like less of a curse than just poor choices, but okay. Except the mother of the author of this book decides that SHE is going to be the first WOMAN that the curse affects. She's got a bad feeling about it or something. And then she gets cancer! A lot of cancer! All the time! ...but is that the curse? Because I thought money was the curse? No, no, the curse is SCARY CHEMICALS from JELL-O that CAUSES CANCER. But also it's the PATRIARCHY, forcing women into the kitchens to make Jell-O for their families, and the enforced silence of these women METASTASIZES INTO CANCER. Lololololololol this book seriously needed to decide WHAT the curse really was. Because it started off as money, and then became THE PATRIARCHY, and CANCER, and CHEMICALS (ooooooh super spoopy chemicals). Whatever. Pretty damn weaksauce. (And you are not scaring me away from my damn Jell-O. Everything will give you cancer. That's life.)

  13. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia

    I really liked the first quarter of this book, and then I started to lose interest. My opinion will be in the minority, I’m sure, but it just didn’t work for me. Bummed.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Debbie's Book Vlog

    Didn't care for this book at all and how it was written. I expected more on the history of Jell-O and stories on family that were actually involved in running the company. Not in this book. Just 3 women who spend and live off the family fortune who in the end talk very poorly of the product that made them their income.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lloyd

    Allie Rowbottom is not part of the Jello family and her perspective is through the eyes of her mother who has no blood relation to the Woodward family that founded the Jello company.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Karen Nelson

    The concept of this book was very attractive to me. I really wanted to like this book, but somehow this book fell flat for me. This book seems disjointed in parts, and follows a lot of threads, and can be difficult to follow at times. I caught myself going back to see if I had missed something, or to try to figure out how the author “got there”. The book is a  memoir about the family who bought Jello-O patent & became ridiculously wealthy as a result. In 1899, the author's great-great-great- The concept of this book was very attractive to me. I really wanted to like this book, but somehow this book fell flat for me. This book seems disjointed in parts, and follows a lot of threads, and can be difficult to follow at times. I caught myself going back to see if I had missed something, or to try to figure out how the author “got there”. The book is a  memoir about the family who bought Jello-O patent & became ridiculously wealthy as a result. In 1899, the author's great-great-great-uncle bought the patent for $450 and it changed the family’s trajectory in social and wealth status. But, as the author attempts to tell us, with the change of social status came what she is calling the "Jell-O curse" which has followed the family for generations. There are mysterious illnesses throughout the family and in the factory making Jell-O. There was a lot of detail about hospitalizations, which was long winded, in my opinion. A bit of editing may have helped with this section. Overall, I guess this is an interesting look at an American staple for most of us growing up in the 1960’s. It seems like a lot of these uber rich families have issues, just like the rest of us, except they have much more privilege and access to health care. Oops. Maybe I just need to stop reading books that have a thread of whininess through them. Thank you to the publisher and #NetGalley for a pre-publication ebook in exchange for an honest review.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Donna Bailey

    Ok book. Guess I was hoping for less misery and more jello

  18. 4 out of 5

    Becki

    The books was SO misleading. Yes she does write her family history and yes their family has ties to Jell-O's beginnings but it was SUCH a dreary, poor read. Was expecting more indepth history of Jell-O and how it tied to the family. She basically tries to tie every unhappy woman in her family to a curse of Jell-O against women and their happiness and success etc. I feel for some of the things they go through but MOST of the book never ties back into Jell-O though she periodically touches base wi The books was SO misleading. Yes she does write her family history and yes their family has ties to Jell-O's beginnings but it was SUCH a dreary, poor read. Was expecting more indepth history of Jell-O and how it tied to the family. She basically tries to tie every unhappy woman in her family to a curse of Jell-O against women and their happiness and success etc. I feel for some of the things they go through but MOST of the book never ties back into Jell-O though she periodically touches base with the topic. Waste of time.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Elisa

    Ugh. I thought a book about Jello would be fun, but this is not fun at all. It's unrelenting misery and sickness, the cute cover is not accurate at all. Oh right, you can't judge a book by its cover.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Betsy Crawford

    I have been on the waiting list to read this book for a while so I was very excited to take it with me to the beach. What a complete disappointment! This is such a load of self-indulgent bull$ht. Do not waste your time.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Joanne Clarke Gunter

    I thought this would be a book about the history of Jell-O and there is a smattering of that, but it really is a memoir filled with way too much whining about life with the blame for bad decisions and misfortune placed on family money from some sort of Jell-O money "curse". I don't like whining and don't believe in "curses" so I didn't like this book much.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jeanne

    I read this ARC and was just expecting a family history. It is so very much more. I was stunned reading about all the ways women are silenced. Not in a violent way but through history it has become so subtle and insidious. I've always felt I'm a strong woman but I even could see ways that I have been swayed just in making me believe I was needing to change. Very interesting read. I'm aware of the history of women but to read the subtleness of advertisements, see how the association of "you're ju I read this ARC and was just expecting a family history. It is so very much more. I was stunned reading about all the ways women are silenced. Not in a violent way but through history it has become so subtle and insidious. I've always felt I'm a strong woman but I even could see ways that I have been swayed just in making me believe I was needing to change. Very interesting read. I'm aware of the history of women but to read the subtleness of advertisements, see how the association of "you're just anxious" as a diagnosis all in this one family and small town was moving and educational.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Janday

    A fascinating, generational biography/memior of three heiresses and their individual interpretations of their family "curse." Rowbottom covers feminism, family drama, and the fate of sick girls in the hands of a patriarchal medical system. For fans of sweeping family stories, repressed New England histories, and the lives of women behind the scenes of very public histories.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Mary Beth

    This is a DNF for me. I wanted to like the book but I struggled to stay engaged. The story wandered all over the place and I lost interest in trying to discern the central point. Thank you for the ARC.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jan P

    Jello-O Girls is a memoir by a descendant of the people who bought the Jell-O patent in 1899. From then until the present, though the family has been financially set and immensely privileged, Rowbottom posits that a "curse" beset the family and manifested itself in suicides, cancer, alcoholism and mysterious ailments. To me, that could be the story of many families, but without the Jell-O connection. And I had trouble relating her personal family story to the impact of Jell-O not only in their l Jello-O Girls is a memoir by a descendant of the people who bought the Jell-O patent in 1899. From then until the present, though the family has been financially set and immensely privileged, Rowbottom posits that a "curse" beset the family and manifested itself in suicides, cancer, alcoholism and mysterious ailments. To me, that could be the story of many families, but without the Jell-O connection. And I had trouble relating her personal family story to the impact of Jell-O not only in their lives but the lives of Americans, especially to women and "the female experience". A disappointing read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kalen

    Over all, this book puzzled me. Looking back, the subtitle very clearly states that this is a family history, but from the description of the book it sounds much more like it is going to be a history of Jell-o and an unraveling of the causes/stories around the mysterious illnesses in the town where it was invented. It's not. As the description also says, this is a liberation story. Most definitely, both for Rowbottom and her mother who never got to tell her own story but desperately wanted to. T Over all, this book puzzled me. Looking back, the subtitle very clearly states that this is a family history, but from the description of the book it sounds much more like it is going to be a history of Jell-o and an unraveling of the causes/stories around the mysterious illnesses in the town where it was invented. It's not. As the description also says, this is a liberation story. Most definitely, both for Rowbottom and her mother who never got to tell her own story but desperately wanted to. That's where Jell-o Girls is at its strongest. The book weaves family (largely around Mary, her mother) and Rowbottom's personal history with feminism, witchcraft, psychology, and oh, the Jell-o history is in there somewhere. The Jell-o story (which, if you haven't figured out yet was what I was here for) was like a bit character that pops up every now and again as if to say, "I'm still here! Don't forget about me!" This inter-weaving of themes works with varying degrees of success. I actually found the domestic science history parts to be the most interesting--how we came to a place where our food is largely made of chemicals and designed for housewife ease. So, if you're looking for a family history, this is your book. If you're looking for more, you'll get bites of it but not the entire wiggly, jiggly (red, please) bowl.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    I found the parts about the history of jell-o interesting, in terms of women's roles and feminism at that time. The rest of the book (most of it) about the author, her mother and grandmother were ok but overall too depressing.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Debby

    I thought maybe this would be about the women who developed Jell-O. Not at all. While it deals with family history, it is insightful, and revealing. It's a powerful story - but not the jiggly fun of gelatin in any flavor.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Laura Herold

    If you’ve ever had a sick parent then skip the the last quarter of the book, major trigger. I enjoyed otherwise.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    Just now, I almost threw this book into the washing machine with my sheets. As we all know, too much water can ruin your Jell-o preparation. In this case, however, nothing could make it any worse. This book is as insipid as your worst Jell-o experience ever—or, maybe, more so.

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