American Originals: Crunch Time

By Cara Sutermeister Premium

Americans certainly can’t contain themselves around potato chips. This crispy snack is a true American original — invented, refined, produced and consumed in the United States. A Fourth of July picnic isn’t a real picnic without chips. A true American couch potato can’t lounge on the sofa watching football games without munching on them. And we definitely can’t eat just one: The Snack Food Association estimates that we eat a whopping 2.7 billion potato chips on Super Bowl Sunday alone.

When America’s preferred munchy turns 150 this year, we aren’t going to show any signs of stopping.

But there’s more to potato chips than meets the eye — or mouth, for that matter. The invention of the potato chip was actually a mistake. The delicious treat we know and love today wasn’t even supposed to taste good. The potato chip’s unique origin and amusing history make it even more worth celebrating this sesquicentennial year.

The crunchy saga started with a simple act of spite back in 1853. As the story goes, railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt was vacationing at a resort in Saratoga Springs, NY, when he sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen because they were too thick. Outraged at Vanderbilt’s haughty behavior, cook George Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes paper thin. He flung them into boiling oil, fried them to a crisp and salted them heavily. But much to Crum’s chagrin, Vanderbilt loved the potatoes, and these “Saratoga chips” became an instant success. The recipe quickly spread to other restaurants along the East Coast.

Potato chips remained a popular restaurant item throughout the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1895 that the snack began to enter the home. Entrepreneur William Tappenden began delivering potato chips to grocery stores in the Cleveland area on his horse-drawn wagon. As more and more people demanded the salty chips, he moved his chip production to his barn and created one of the first potato-chip factories.

Other entrepreneurs followed Tappenden’s lead. A young grocer named Earl Wise from Berwick, Pa., used his extra potatoes to make potato chips and started selling Wise Potato Chips from his store in 1921. At the same time, Bill and Salie Utz from Hanover, Pa., began producing Hanover Home Brand Potato Chips in a small building behind their home. The hand-operated equipment they used produced 50 pounds of chips per hour. Soon, almost every region of the country had its own chip brand. Californians ate Scudder’s; the Midwest munched on Dan Dee and Num Num’s. New England’s brands of choice? Leominster’s and Tri-Sum.

Up until 1926, potato chips were sold in huge glass display cases or cracker barrels. Then Laura Scudder of Monterey Park, Calif., had a fresh idea. She started packing potato chips in small, waxed iron bags so the chips wouldn’t get stale. Six years later, the Dixie Wax Paper Co. of Dallas introduced the first pre-printed, waxed glassine bag, which kept the chips fresher for a longer period.

Even more revolutionary to the ever-growing industry was the invention of the continuous potato-chip cooker. Freeman McBeth devised the cooker in 1929, and the Ross Potato Chip Company in Richland, Pa., first used it. Few manufacturers were able to afford the machine until after the Depression, however.

Meanwhile, Herman Lay of Nashville began popularizing the potato chip in the South in 1932. He started distributing chips from a factory in Atlanta, out of the trunk of his car. He purchased the factory in 1938 and began selling Lay’s brand potato chips. In 1965, his chips would become the first brand to be sold nationally.

The popularity of potato chips continued to grow steadily, but many people still didn’t know what to do with the savory snack. Some merchants had been telling their customers to use potato chips as soap chips on wash day. One storeowner even recommended eating potato chips in a bowl with sugar and cream. So the National Potato Chip Institute, known as the Snack Food Association today, was founded in 1937 to educate both retailers and consumers about potato chips.

The potato-chip industry scaled back during the 1940s. Although production continued during World War II, the government imposed limitations and tight rationing on almost every material needed to make potato chips. TV commercials helped chips bounce back in the 1950s. Chip companies partnered with other products such as pickles, mustard and soft drinks to create ads that recommended new serving ideas.

In 1970, potato-chip sales topped the $1 billion mark. But that milestone was swiftly followed by the 1973 fuel crisis, which forced many chip-making operations to shut down. Those who relied on petroleum-based products to package their chips also faced scarce supplies. To make matters worse, potato prices skyrocketed after a bad growing season.

As the industry recovered, the 1980s and 1990s brought about the potato chip selection we know today. Thicker, ridged chips, made especially for dipping, emerged in 1983. The industry also began experimenting with home-style kettle-cooked chips and flavored potato chips, such as tangy ranch, BBQ and cheddar and sour cream. Health-conscious consumers flocked to low- and no-fat potato chips, increasing those sales 123 percent in 1995.

Potato chips continue to reign as the snack food king. Each year, 48 billion potatoes become potato chips, and Americans spend an average of $21.90 per person on this popular tasty snack. And all of this success is due to a cook’s response to criticism he received 150 years ago. Let’s celebrate the potato chip’s unintended invention couch-potato style — grab a bag and start eating!

Tater Trivia

• It takes 4 pounds of fresh potatoes to make 1 pound of potato chips.

•The first Potato Chip Queen was crowned in 1946. Dorthea Fagnano of Yonkers, NY, age 15, earned the honor with her winning recipe for an au gratin casserole made with’ potato chips, carrots, onions and cheese.

•The Vincent Lopez Orchestra and the Martin Sisters recorded a song called “Potato Chips” in 1949, which played on the radio with other songs such as “The Popcorn Polka” and “Rum and Coca-Cola.”

• The thickness of an ordinary potato chip is 55/1,000 of an inch. Ridged chips are four times thicker, 210/1,000 of an inch.

• In 1968, potato chip companies tried — and failed — to prohibit Pringles from being called a chip, because it isn’t made from an actual potato. Procter and Gamble eventually decided to use the term “crisp” to describe its product, which it makes from reconstituted potato flakes.

• Forty-two percent of Americans snack on potato chips during a week period, and the average consumer eats chips more than once a week.

• Frito-Lay encourages employees to sample potato chips during their snack break to test the product. New workers who indulge in this perk often put on some extra weight, known as the “Frito 15.”


From Family Tree Magazine‘s March 2003 America’s Scrapbook.