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Potato Chips

This page is part of the Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States by John E. Harmon



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ORIGIN

While it is not exactly geography and really not something for an atlas, I have to discuss the story.  Like many of the individual inventor stories,   there is little that we really know and a lot that is embellished to meet the needs of the writers and the perceived needs of the reader. So what follows is a small summary  and analysis of the various tellings of the tale. 

Where Was the Potato Chip Invented? - It is important to keep in mind that frying potatoes was a normal part of American cooking by the middle 1850s when the potato chip first appears. The "History of the French Fry" [http://www.select-ware.com/fries/docs/history.html ] credits Thomas Jefferson with bringing the idea from France in the "late 1700s."  From the descriptions of what George Crum did with the sliced potatoes, they must have been sliced across the narrow axis of the potato and fried.  They were also eaten with a fork at that time.   So it is certain that restaurants all over the country were serving fried potatoes but only at the Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, NY, did a chef slice them thin enough that they became something different.

When you consider how simple the idea of a potato chip is, the a possibility of independent invention arises.  There is good evidence that something very much like a potato chip was common enough in England to be included in a cookbook.  In 1854 in Soyer's Shilling Cookery, was a recipe for fried potatoes that required them to be cut very thin, fried in about two inches of fat and manipulated with a skimmer to keep them from sticking together (in Walton 1992, 24)

While it appears that Saratoga Springs is the place of origin, a history of the community (Brandon 1901) made no mention of the invention.  Neither did another light history of famous watering places (Barrett 1941).  This is not uncommon with items of popular culture like the potato chip and does not mean that it did not happen in 1853 in Saratoga Springs.

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When Was It Invented? - The summer of 1853 is clearly the approximate time period. One completely undocumented source I found on the web boldly states it was   Aug. 24, 1853 (D.T. 1997)  but no one else seems to be so certain.  1853 is the year, however, but you will occasionally see a mixed up date of 1835.

Who Invented Potato Chips - Most  writers agree that the inventor was a cook named George Crum. A local Saratoga Springs historian, however, says that it may have been his sister, Kate Wicks (Fitzgerald , quoted in  Crowe 2006) For many brief tellings that is all you find out about the man.  But other sources mention his racial background, e.g. "Crum was part Indian, part black, a former guide in the Adirondacks, and in his own way a rather colorful figure in this area" (Gribb 1975).  Other times only his Indian heritage is mentioned (Snack Food Association 1987; Barrett 1941).   He is occasionally mentioned in histories of significant African-American figures but not as often in collections dealing with native Americans. There appears little doubt that he actually existed, was a cook at Moon's Lake House on Saratoga Lake and later purchased his own restaurant on the lake.

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What Kind of Person Was He? - Most of the stories , when they discuss what kind of person Crum was, refer to him as a character. His return of the original fried potatoes (whoever ordered them) was a "sarcastic reply" (Snack Food Association 1987) and that he had an "irascible nature" (Grib 1975)  or was "a tough old codger who had once been an Indian trapper" (Barrett 1941, 186).     They sometimes mention his multiple wives, usually 5,  who supplied inexpensive labor when he finally opened his own restaurant at the south end of the lake (Barrett 1941).  His character figures heavily in the answers to the question,

Why Did Anybody Do This? - Here, as with many points of the story, there is near unanimity.  A patron, see below, returned his fried potatoes to the kitchen because they were not crunchy enough (Snack Food Association 1987; Panati 1987)    One source contends that this behavior happened occasionally to Crum and it enraged him.  "The few who did complain and returned their orders to the kitchen, were rewarded with the most indigestible substances the black chef could concoct.   His somewhat irascible nature made him commit mayhem on many a returned meal.   It pleased him to watch their reaction, which ranged from disbelief to a hurried departure." (Gibbs 1975). 

So, the fried potatoes come back to the kitchen.

What Happened in the Kitchen ? - All the stories refer to slicing potatoes into much thinner slices. Gibbs (1975) says he wrapped them in a napkin and dropped them into a tub of ice water, waited half an hour and dumped the slices into hot grease.  None of the other versions I read had anything like this detail and there were no sources for that section so it may have been conjecture.

A second part of the preparation revolved around the salt.  Some versions just say he salted them but others refer to an aggressive salting, putting so much salt on that no one would be able to eat them.  If we are to believe the stories about his character, it would seem that the latter motive was dominant.

Who Was the Patron? - Saratoga at that time was the premier "watering hole" for mid 19th century society.  Close to New York, it attracted the very highest strata of the society and one member of that group, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, plays a key role in some "official versions" of the story.   All sources derived from the Snack Food Association of America's large, picture book volume on the history and development of the snack food industry refer to Vanderbilt as being the patron.  Others who refer to Charles Panati's (1989) excellent but not well documented Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things speak only of an unnamed patron.  It is very likely that Vanderbilt ate at the lodge  and there are other stories of his appreciation of Crum's cooking, but it appears largely a matter of conjecture that he was indeed the person.

The inclusion of the Commodore in this story was the work of the Snack Food Association.  In a privately published cookbook, a relative by marriage of the Vanderbilt family (Whitney 1977) says she learned of it from a clipping sent to her by a friend in August of 1976 where the Snack Food Association during its annual convention named Vanderbilt as the customer who sent the chips back.  The association repeated the story in the history of snack food they published in 1987 (Snack Food Association 1987), even including a photograph of the Commodore.

Commodore Vanderbilt appears in the story in another way.  Most versions mention that after the success of the chips, George Crum built his own restaurant on Saratoga Lake. Barrett (1941, 186)  said  that the restaurant, called Crumbs House, "had been started on its career by William Wall, old Commodore Vanderbilt and three other men."

What Happened After That - Once again, there is unanimity in the telling of the story.  Instead of leaving the restaurant in shame, the patron, whoever he was, loved the potatoes and asked for more.  Originally Crum called the item "potato crunches." (Snack Food Association 1987).   The chef   later opened his own restaurant and served the potatoes there.  It is claimed that he placed them in baskets on all the tables and they were an important drawing point for the restaurant. He also marketed them for takeout in boxes as "Saratoga Chips" but did not patent or otherwise protect his invention.  The Snack Food Association put up a plaque at the site in 1976 commemorating  the invention.

DIFFUSION

Piecing together how chips spread between 1853 and the early part of the 20th century is difficult.  One thing that is known about that period, however, is that potato chips (Saratoga Chips) were principally prepared and consumed in restaurants.  A reasonable conjecture is that visitors to Saratoga Spring took the chips and the basic cooking principles to other parts of the country.

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 first to William Tappendon of Cleveland, OH, in 1895.   He began making chips in his kitchen and delivering to neighborhood stores but later converted a barn in the rear of his house into what the Snack Food Association called "one of the first potato chip factories" in the country (Snackfood Association 1987).  Other chip manufacturers appeared in the first two decades of the twentieth century:

"Under the brand name of "Hanover Home Brand Potato Chips", Salie 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 Salie used made about fifty
pounds of potato chips per hour.

While Salie 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." (Utz 1998)

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.  This bag made customer self-service possible.  Around this time also, cellophane and later glassine packaging also expanded the market for potato chips.

* Still in business, perhaps under a changed but related  name and/or ownership.   As in the beer industry, several companies such as Snacktime, have purchased small snack food manufacturers but allowed the business to retain the name because of customer loyalty.

early_mrs.gif 8.9kb The above are just a few of the many small companies started around this time.   Since the source for this was the Snack Food Association's 50th anniversary publication, only members of the association are discussed in any detail and many potato chip companies are quite small and not members of the association so it is a limited list and there were probably many more. When mapped out, it is obvious that the potato chip in the 75 years since its invention in Saratoga Springs had diffused across the country and was now a snack food item purchased in stores rather than a restaurant item.

Potato chip manufacture in the first part of the century was done in small batches and small kettles.  The invention of the continuous fryer in 1929  changed production dramatically and was probably more important to the industry than changes in packaging because it enabled tremendous economies of scale.   First installed at the Ross Potato Chip Co. in Richland PA, the Depression slowed its adoption but it eventually drove out most of the kettle cooker companies until the recent revival in small batch kettle-cooked, small distribution area chip manufacturers. In 1933, the first pre-print waxed glassine bag appeared in order  to improve freshness (and expand market areas) and provide a place for advertising and brand identification.

The potato chip did not leave the United States as a food item until 1921 when they were introduced in England.  Since the words chips was already in use for what we in this country call french fries, the word crisps was used.   It also spread to Europe but the continuous cooker did not make it outside of the United States until 1950. (Snack Food Association 1987).

REGIONS

PRODUCTION OF THE RAW MATERIAL

Potatoes are a versatile product and their use in United States food culture has shifted significantly over the long and short run.  The first (English) settlers to bring the potato to this country regarded it primarily as animal fodder and it was not until large numbers of German and northern European migrants began to arrive  that the potato became the human food item it is today.  Still around half of the potatoes consumed by people in the US are consumed as "table stock"  but this proportion is dropping slowly as more potatoes are processed before consumption. Frozen french fries account for about half of that processed value and potato chips have usually been the second most important class of processed potato product sales, around 20%.   Dehydrated potatoes are becoming more important recently, though. But sales of potatoes for producing chips and shoestring potatoes (a small component of the market) approach $50 million a year and represent an important food product in this country.  

Not all potatoes are suitable for chipping, however.  [What makes a good chipping potato?} The premier chipping potato state is Pennsylvania  Although the state ranks only 13th in total potato output, 70 % of the acres in potatoes are in chipping potatoes and these potatoes go into $ 57 million worth of potato chips a year, highest in the nation (Penn State 1998). 

Potatoes  will tolerate long distance shipment and considerable storage time but the fresher the raw potato product, the better the chip.   For that reason, potato chip manufacturers often shift the location of their production sources during the year.  At times when good chipping potatoes are available nearby they make use of that source but when those inputs are consumed or no longer available, they have to reach further for the most important input to the potato chip.

chip_pot_sources.gif 11 kb The map was produced from data in an article that looked at the changing distribution of inputs for 16 large chip manufacturers in eastern Pennsylvania in 1987.  Potatoes from New York and Pennsylvania are used year-round from storage but as Spring comes on, the manufacturers begin pulling potatoes from Florida and they work up the east coast and by July are back into the Mid-Atlantic states.  In late fall and through most of the winter a principal source area is stored potatoes from North Dakota and storage facilities in Ohio supply a small amount at this time of year as well (Dunn et all 1989).  With good transportation facilities so widely available in the United States, it is reasonable to assume that potato chip manufacturers in other parts of the country have similar shifts in the locations of their sources. 

Notice, however, that Maine and Idaho, the two best-known "potato states" do not figure in the chip production in eastern Pennsylvania at all.  The potatoes produced in those states are mostly for table stock.[check this data?]

So production of chipping potatoes is national but Pennsylvania is still the most important state in production of that type of potato and the most important producer of potato chips, particularly eastern Pennsylvania.

PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION OF THE FINAL PRODUCT

Because of the perishability and fragility of the final product, most potato chips are produced very close to the place of consumption.  The largest manufacturers, the Frito-Lay Company and Eagle Snacks, have production and distribution facilities all over the country.  But there are still dozens of small to large manufacturers in the Northeastern United States and around the country that have very devoted consumers, strong brand loyalty and profitable regional markets.  The production of snack foods is rather high profit and recession proof so smaller producers have been able to resist the overtures of the larger manufacturers.  Other than milk, it is difficult to think of a food product in the United States that is more regional than potato chips.  For someone who knows the snack food industry, the chip aisle of a grocery store anywhere in this country provides excellent clues as to where he or she is.

There are also regional preferences in snack foods generally and potato chips in particular.  In the 1930s a regional difference developed where the consumers in the Midwest preferred a light blander ship and glassine packaging and in the East they would rather eat a strong-flavored, darker chip.  These chips required less protection from light and were less fragile and could be packed more tightly so cellophane was used more than glassine. (Snack Food Association 1987).   From personal experience, I believe the taste variation between these two regions persists  but packaging differences have disappeared.  Salt and vinegar flavored chips are also strong in the Northeast and Canada.  There is also considerable regional variation in seasoning for the chips and producers experiment to produce a seasoning that will  "'peak' at an optimum level and then dissipate rapidly, creating a desire for repeat consumption."  This allows regional manufacturers to "take advantage of purely local opportunities offered by regional variations in taste" (Snack Food Association 1987, 285).  Hiland Potato Chips of Des Moines, IA, even conducted market research and found out  that Midwesterners still like a lighter taste and also prefer products  grown and made in the Midwest.  They changed their suppliers and their slogan - from "the chippiest chip around," to "the flavor of America's Heartland."  These changes along with production efficiencies have allowed them to grow faster than other manufacturers (Lingle 1991).

The small local and regional manufacturers maintain this regional diversity with some difficulty. They are very aware of their regional advantages and compete strongly against the national brands of Frito-Lay, now a division of PepsiCo. Herr's, an eastern Pennsylvania regional manufacturer was actually  increasing its market share relative to Frito-Lay by concentrating on its existing market and "eschewing geographic spread."  Another  well-known regional manufacturer did not even want to talk with the business magazine Forbes for fear of provoking Frito-Lay into aggressive competition. (Samuel 1994).  In 2004 Frito-Lay started a national billboard and radio advertising campaign pitting their chips against regional chips.  Billboards that said things like ""The Harrisburg area prefers the taste of Lay's over Utz," and "Chicago prefers the taste of Lay's over Jays" aroused the ire of the smaller regional manufacturers and they took Lays to court over how the survey was conducted.  In the last few years (2001 to 2004)  concerns for health have cut into overall potato chip consumption and Lays is managing modest growth but some of the small regional manufacturers have experienced significant declines (Terhune 2004).     The potato chip is a food item that demonstrates the battle of national versus regional.

In the early 1960s two companies,  the Proctor and Gamble company of Cincinnati, OH,(Pringles) and General Mills of Minneapolis, MN (Chipos)  decided to take the technology for producing soap and apply it to potato chips, or something like them. Create a slurry, press it, bake it, wrap it and market it; the processes are remarkably similar for bars of soap and Pringles, the name Proctor and Gamble chose for the new product.  The snack food industry was appalled and frightened by this threat to market a standard product nationally, although the large national manufacturers had been doing that for many years, and they fought the name of the product vigorously through court actions and lobbying.   Their goal was to deny these companies use of the words "potato chip."   They eventually failed and the official name for this product is "potato chips made from dried potatoes" with the "made from dried potatoes" in type at least one-half the size of the largest type in "potato chips." This summer, while consuming a canister, I noticed that Pringles are now called "potato crisps."  A Lexis/Nexis search produced no legal prodding from anyone to change the name and I have yet to send a letter to the Proctor and Gamble Company to find out why. It appears that General Mills no longer makes Chipos.

This controversy drew the ire of political commentator Mark Russell who, on public television in late 1975, forever endeared himself to the snack food industry and lovers of regional culture generally by declaiming:

"My fellow Americans, I believe that the quality of life in America today is deteriorating because of the presence in our homes of canned potato chips.  May I say that the Pringles controversy is an ever-growing menace.  When we were children, were potato chips packed in an air-tight can? No, potato chips were meant to be free - BORN FREE - bouncing around in a little bag...All Pringles are exactly the same.  You can buy one in Washington, D.C. and then go out to San Francisco and buy another that is exactly the same.  Now, if that isn't Communism, I don't know what is."   (Quoted in Snack Food Association 1987, 286).

Some potato chip companies of the core region with a web presence:

Sources