Allie Rowbottom

Jell-O Girls: A Family History

Published by Little, Brown

Aug 29, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Allie Rowbottom is the great-great-great niece of the man who originally bought the patent for Jell-O from its inventor in 1899. Purchased for $450 and sold 26 years later for $67 million, Jell-O provided Rowbottom's extended family immense wealth. And with that wealth also came tragedy.

With Jell-O Girls, Rowbottom aims to research her family's past and expose what is referred to here as the "Jell-O curse." Let's be clear, Jell-O Girls is not a history of Jell-O and the people involved. Yes, there are tidbits of Jell-O history throughout the book, but Rowbottom herself acknowledges that much of this history is taken from Carolyn Wyman's 2001 history Jell-O: A Biography. Instead, Jell-O Girls reads as a memoir of Rowbottom, her mother, and her maternal grandmother, the latter two who passed away due to cancer.

Jell-O nonetheless provides the backdrop to this tale. Rowbottom's thesis, supported by correspondence with her mother, seems to be that the family's Jell-O fortune rode on the back of a patriarchal system that served only the dollar, and that women in its orbit were to remain silent, something that Rowbottom concludes contributed to or peripherally caused many of the ailments and illnesses the women associated with the Jell-O brand suffered. [A parallel tale to that of the author's family is also presented here in the girls from LeRoy, NY, Jell-O's birthplace, who in 2012 were afflicted with similar mysterious motor tic-related ailments.]

Let me repeat. You will not find in Jell-O Girls a true family history, at least not one dating back to the original patent buyers and their immediate families. What you will find, however, is a poignant tale of Rowbottom and the two maternal generations before her. Rowbottom (and her mother, through conversation and additional primary source research) grapple with their histories, their familial, emotional, and medical difficulties, and how one comes to terms with life in the shadow of a classic American brand. Where the book succeeds greatest is in its emotion, the stories of the women who struggle to find themselves, amid something much bigger. (

Author rating: 6.5/10

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