Fall 2008

Ingestion / Edible Object 114868-7(34)

The Jell-O box and the atom bomb

Daniel Rosenberg

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Archives are meant to be indiscriminate—to receive and not to select. As a consequence, they are full of unstrange objects of all varieties. Occasionally, such objects embody an exceptional unstrangeness, as in the case of Object 114868-7(34) in Record Group 118 of the United States National Archives and Records Administration—Northeast Region (New York).[1] At a glance, Object 114868-7(34) looks more interesting than it really is. But looks are deceiving. Students of history know that the famous espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951 turned on the question of whether Julius Rosenberg had arranged a meeting between two communist spies, one of whom had confessed to stealing atomic secrets from the military compound at Los Alamos, the other to delivering them to his Soviet controller. To the bitter end, the Rosenbergs protested their ignorance. According to the prosecution, led by Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn, Julius Rosenberg set up the meeting from New York (he himself never went to New Mexico) and gave each of the spies a key that would allow him to recognize the other. The prosecution alleged that Rosenberg took the side of an ordinary box of Jell-O, cut it into two jagged pieces, and gave one half to each spy. Then, when the spies met in Albuquerque in June 1945, each was able to confirm the other’s identity by fitting the two fragments together like puzzle pieces. But the object preserved in the National Archives that appears to be the famous Jell-O box is, in fact, nothing of the sort. It is an original facsimile, an ordinary Jell-O box purchased by the Department of Justice in 1951 for display as Exhibit 4 at the trial.[2]

At the trial, the term used to characterize the box was “substantially identical,” which seems to have meant something like “not identical at all, but you get the idea.” On this point, the prosecution was crystal clear: Exhibit 4, now archived as Object 114868-7(34), was not the same box that Julius Rosenberg had cut up and handed out—but a Jell-O box is just a Jell-O box, after all. David Greenglass, one of the confessed spies who had turned witness for the prosecution, testified that the fragments of the box shown in the courtroom were just like the ones that his wife, Ruth, had received from Julius Rosenberg in January 1945 and that the Soviet courier, Harry Gold, had presented to him in Albuquerque in June of that year. Though he testified that he had not paid attention to how the original box looked or what was written on it (adding that he was color blind), he maintained that the boxes looked about the same. Moreover, he knew, because everyone knows, what a box of Jell-O with its big red letters looks like.

That’s the thing about Jell-O. In the beginning, in 1897, its inventors, Pearle and May Wait, had heady ideas, and, right off the bat, the ad men called Jell-O “America’s most famous dessert.” Eventually, they wouldn’t be far wrong. But it wasn’t the special qualities of Jell-O that made for its success; it was its very lack of qualities. In 1897, gelatin desserts were not new. Peter Cooper had patented his process for deriving gelatin a half-century earlier, in 1845, and by the turn of the century most of the uses to which Jell-O would later be put were already in practice in kitchens all over. But before Jell-O, there was still the soaking, and the waiting, and the adding of flavors. There was still, as the Jell-O ads were apt to point out, an indefinable animal scent. “Ooh, what a smell!” went one ad. And pictures enhanced the text; as Carolyn Wyman observes, “It’s hard to find a women’s magazine from 1934 or 1935 that does not contain an ad of a woman with a Royal, Knox, or Jell-O gelatin box up her nose.”[3] The innovations of Jell-O were to simplify the preparation, to integrate the dessert flavors into the mix (initially, strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon), and to neutralize the taste and special fragrance of the gelatin.

Jell-O rarely staked its claim on tastiness per se, only on its likeability and its inoffensiveness. Jell-O was a dessert that you could eat to infinity. As the old slogans put it, “People who like to eat like Jell-O gelatin,” and, “There’s always room for Jell-O.” When Jell-O eventually introduced an unflavored variety to compete with Knox and Royal, it promoted the new Jell-O as having “a lack of flavor all its own.” In Jell-O, we are in the realm of food with no qualities, matter without form (ready to be molded), medium without content (avoid raw pineapple, which will sink), neither raw nor cooked (no refrigerator needed either, contrary to the popular misconception). Trying to define its special character is, as the saying goes, like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” And none of this even comes close to touching the metaphysical complexity by which Jell-O, derived from the bones, skins, and other leftovers of cows, horses, and pigs, ends up outside the domain of meat, and, by some arcane Maimonidean logic attested by orthodox rabbis, turns out not only kosher, but kosher for Passover. 

The Jell-O box admitted as evidence during the espionage trial of the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell, 6–29 March 1951. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

By 1951, imitation raspberry flavor Jell-O had achieved a nearly unparalleled degree of unremarkableness. Admittedly, the use of the term “imitation” on the box was a bit of a boast, in the same way that “virtual” is today. It was meant to give the product a little gee-whiz appeal. But the gee-whiz gesture, too, was entirely regular in the gee-whiz 1950s. It would be another twenty years before a Soviet scientist noticed that some lab rats that had ingested Red Dye No. 2—the very coloring used in raspberry Jell-O—were dying of cancer, and the claim of artificiality would finally lose its luster. It was the Rosenberg trial itself that Irving Saypol called a “necessary by-product of the atomic age,” but the same words might equally apply to the star Exhibit 4 presented by the prosecution, the imitation box of imitation raspberry flavor Jell-O, a fabrication of a fabrication at once satisfying the highest standards of food science and evidentiary procedure. 

According to David Greenglass, there had been an actual Jell-O transaction in 1945 (with a box, he said, “much darker in color”). Problem was, no one had the box. Both Greenglass and Gold testified to having disposed of their pieces immediately after their contact. But problems are made to be solved, and in the Rosenberg case, the prosecution was nothing if not inventive. On the morning of 12 March 1951, prosecutor Roy Cohn entered into evidence as Exhibit 4 a brand new box of imitation raspberry flavor Jell-O. He then asked Greenglass to cut it up in just the same way that Julius Rosenberg had. Greenglass removed one side of the Jell-O box—the side with instructions for making a coconut Bavarian Cream, not the side “with the picture of the little girl”—and snipped it into two pieces, which were then marked Government’s Exhibit 4-A for the piece similar to the one kept by his wife and 4-B for the one similar to the one kept by Julius Rosenberg to pass along to his Soviet contact.

The defense made no objection to entering the two pieces of cardboard into the trial. Just the opposite; the move was such an obvious piece of courtroom theater that it appeared as likely as not to blow up on the prosecution. When it came time for cross-examination, Julius Rosenberg’s defense attorney, Emanuel Bloch, went on the offensive. The prosecution’s reliance on exhibits 4-A and 4-B was a clear demonstration of the lack of material evidence of a crime, he said. Bloch returned again and again to the point. David Greenglass was not present for the cutting of the box. He had no clear memory of what the box looked like. He did not know what color the box was or what was written on it. Gold’s testimony was even more vague. Initially, he referred to the Jell-O side as only a “piece of cardboard.” Then, with prompting, he became more specific, but not much more, saying it “appeared to have been cut from a packaged food of some sort.”

And even Exhibit 4 itself seemed to cry out for doubt. As Bloch noted in his cross-examination, this was not just any Jell-O but imitation flavor Jell-O. The whole thing was just too weird to let pass without comment. But Judge Kaufman, who indulged the prosecution in its box-cutting skit, was less lenient with the defense, closing the 12 March session by chiding Bloch for posing so many detailed questions about an exhibit that, after all, was not actually evidence, and for his “facetious” reference to the imitation character of the Jell-O. The judge was, he said, looking forward to turning the page on the whole “Jell-O situation.”

But, as defense attorney Edward Kuntz argued, none of this was a matter of humor, and the next morning, to the annoyance of the court, Bloch picked up right where he left off, reading directly from the imitation imitation Jell-O box, and sparring again with a grinning Greenglass. “Did you ever hear of the words ‘coconut Bavarian cream’?” Bloch asked. “Did I ever hear of the words?” Greenglass replied. “I have heard them around, sure.” The defense reasoned that the more the jury got to see the non-evidence of the Jell-O box, the more absurd the whole thing would seem. But, in the matter of Jell-O box, the prosecution won the day. 

What the jury saw in the Jell-O box presented to them was something that didn’t need to be original. It didn’t even need to look like the original. The cleverness of the device, as Ruth Greenglass said on the witness stand, lay in its simplicity and modesty. The fact that the box was unremarkable was what made it so very useful. Who could suspect that such a thing would be the key to the secret of the atom bomb? Who could deny it? And the genius of the jury passed into the archives. Here in a place that claims to be entirely transparent, a medium without a message, here, enshrined as Object 114868-7(34), is a Jell-O box, not the Jell-O box, but one substantially identical to a Jell-O box of great historical interest.

  1. Jell-O Box Exhibit, Case File 114868, Box 7, Item 34; Significant Case Files; United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York; Records of United States Attorneys, Record Group 118; National Archives and Records Administration—Northeast Region (New York).

  2. In the extensive and argumentative literature, see, Bernice Schrank, “Reading the Rosenbergs after Venona,” Labour/Le Travail 49 (2002): 189-210; Ivy Meeropol, dir., Heir to An Execution: A Granddaughter’s Story (HBO/Blowback Productions, 2004). A complete trial transcript may be found online at www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/rosenb/ROS_TRIA.HTM [link defunct—Eds.]. It appears likely that new revelations are now forthcoming. On 7 April 2008, Ruth Greenglass died, and, in June 2008, under pressure from the non-profit National Security Archive and the American Historical Association, federal prosecutors agreed to release some grand jury testimony from the Rosenberg case, still under seal fifty years later.

  3. Carolyn Wyman, Jell-O: A Biography (San Diego: Harcourt, 2001), p. 32. See also www.kraftfoods.com/jello/explore/history [link defunct—Eds.]. 

  4. Marjorie Garber, “Jell-O,” in Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 17.

Daniel Rosenberg is not related to Julius or Ethel Rosenberg. He is associate professor of history in the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, an editor-at-large of Cabinet, and great-grandson of Edward Kuntz.

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