A Short History of the Potato Chip

Potatoes are second as a food in human consumption only to rice. And as thin, salted, crisp chips, they are America’s favorite snack food. Potato chips originated in New England as one man’s variation on the French-fried potato, and their production was the result not of as a thought-out culinary invention but rather as a sudden act of anger and irritation.

george crumbIn the summer of 1853, Native American George Crum was employed as a chef at Moon Lake Lodge, an elegant resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. On the restaurant’s menu were French-fried potatoes, prepared by Crum in the standard, thick-cut French style that was popularized in 1700s France and enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson when he served as ambassador to that country. Jefferson brought the recipe to America and served French fries to guests at Monticello where the dish became a popular and serious dinner fare.

At Moon Lake Lodge on an evening in 1853, one dinner guest found chef Crum’s French fries too thick for his liking and rejected the order. Crum cut and fried a thinner batch, but these, too, met with disapproval. Exasperated, Crum decided to rile the guest by producing French fries too thin and crisp to skewer with a fork. The plan backfired. The guest was ecstatic over the browned, paper-thin potatoes, and other diners requested Crum’s potato chips, which began to appear on the menu as Saratoga Chips, a house specialty.

In 1860 George opened his own restaurant in a building on Malta Avenue near Saratoga Lake, and within a few years was catering to wealthy clients including William Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and Henry Hilton. His restaurant closed around 1890 and he died in 1914 at the age of 92.

The idea of making them as a food item for sale in grocery stores came to many people at around the same time, but perhaps the first was William Tappendon of Cleveland, OH, in 1895.   He began making chips in his kitchen and delivering to neighborhood stores, later converting a barn in the rear of his house into “one of the first potato chip factories” in the country.

At that time, potatoes were tediously peeled and sliced by hand. It was the invention of the mechanical potato peeler in the 1920s that paved the way for potato chips to soar from a small specialty item to a top-selling snack food. For several decades after their creation, potato chips were largely a Northern dinner dish.

In 1921, Bill and Sallie Utz started the Hanover Home Brand Potato Chips in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Sallie Utz used her knowledge of good Pennsylvania Dutch cooking to make the chips in a small summer house behind their home. The hand-operated equipment Sallie used made about fifty pounds of potato chips per hour. While Sallie stayed home making chips, Bill delivered them to “mom and pop” grocery stores and farmer’s markets in the Hanover, PA and Baltimore, MD area.

Out in Monterey Park, California  the Scudders company started making potato chips in 1926. Laura Scudder is credited with developing the wax paper bag for potato chips which made a wider distribution possible because of its preserving properties.  Prior to this bag potato chips were dispensed in bulk from barrels or glass display cases. 

In 1932, Herman Lay founded Lay’s in Nashville, Tenn., which distributed potato chips from a factory in Atlanta, Ga. Herman Lay, a traveling salesman in the South, helped popularize the food from Atlanta to Tennessee. Lay peddled potato chips to Southern grocers out of the trunk of his car, building a business and a name that would become synonymous with the thin, salty snack. Lay’s potato chips became the first successfully marketed national brand.

Growing up in Northern Indiana in the 1950s, potato chips were synonymous to me with the name “Seyfert’s.” They were a local brand that also sold regionally throughout the midwest.

seyfertsIn 1933, Charles Seyfert left his home in PA and drove his pretzel truck to Chicago for the World’s Fair. On his way back home, he passed through Fort Wayne, Indiana, liked what he saw of the northeastern Indiana town and stopped there to begin a pretzel-making business. Although pretzels were Seyfert’s dream, Fort Wayne wasn’t ready for pretzels at that time and the businessman went broke. After a trip back home to PA to gather equipment, Seyfert returned to Fort Wayne and started a potato chip operation. This time, the snack food entrepreneur was successful.

Seyfert opened its doors August 20, 1934, the operation was much different than today’s. Charles Seyfert did everything himself – from peeling potatoes to making chips to delivering the finished product.

The industry that George Crum launched in 1853 continues to grow and prosper. Potato chips have become America’s favorite snack. U.S. retail sales of potato chip are over $6 billion a year.  In 2003 the U.S. potato chip industry employed more than 65,000 people.

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