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They Could Have Been Billionaires: George Crum


The man who made the first batch of potato chips didn't have the political power to profit from his creation.

We've all popped open a bag of potato chips and savored their salty goodness, but few people have probably ever thought about how that little piece of fried heaven became a staple of American culture.

The potato chip's origins begin with the popularity of its French cousin, the fry. French fries were made popular when they were brought to the country by Thomas Jefferson in the 1700s and quickly became a delicacy at restaurants around the newly established country. Yet, it wasn't until 1853 that a disagreement over how french fries should be made led to the invention of the potato chip.

According to the history books, the potato chip was invented on August 24, 1853, at Moon's Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York. It all began when one of the patrons, believed to be wealthy entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt, sent back his food because his french fries were cut too thick. The restaurant's chef, George Crum, sliced the fries for the patron even more thinly, but became irritated when Vanderbilt once again sent back his dish. In a fit of frustration, Crum sliced the potatoes into slivers and fried them. The chef hoped to rile the diner by giving him fries that were too thin and crispy to eat with a fork, forcing the wealthy patron to stoop to eating with his fingers. It was a shock to the chef when Vanderbilt decided he loved these crispy little snacks.

Crum's potato chips became a featured item on the Moon's Lake House menu and in 1860 the chef opened his own restaurant using the profit he had made from the chips. While Crum gets most of the credit for the invention, historian and UCLA professor Lisbeth Gant-Britton tells Minyanville that Crum's sister and Harriet Moon, the wife of the lodge's owner, were said to be involved.

George Crum, who was both African-American and Native American, lived from 1822 to 1914. Crum's invention was known throughout the eastern US as Saratoga Chips.

"In those days, people of color were not allowed to take out patents on their inventions," says Gant-Britton, author of the textbook Holt African American History. "The fact that this story has survived is an amazing testament to the achievement, since so many accomplishments of African-Americans were suppressed at that time in history."

Crum didn't live long enough to see his invention popularized as a grocery store item by Herman Lay. In the 1920s, Lay began selling the chips in bags from Atlanta to Tennessee. In 1961, Lay merged his company with Frito to become the Frito-Lay company, now owned by Pepsi (PEP) and accounting for 59% of the current US snack chip industry. Potato chips are now the most popular snack food in America and are devoured at a rate of 1.2 billion pounds annually.

While the potato chip was never patented, other forms of the invention have been. For example, Procter & Gamble (PG) holds the patent for Pringles, a potato chip-like product that's made of dehydrated and flaked potatoes. Lay patented two machines designed for potato chip manufacturing -- the automatic potato peeler and the conveyer belt frying system.

If you were wishing that Crum's original chips were available to try today -- you'd be in luck. Entrepreneur Danny Jameson and his Saratoga Specialties Company have decided to resurrect Crum's original recipe, including the original take-out box design used by Crum himself.

The "new" Original Saratoga Potato Chips.
  • Courtesy
  • Courtesy

An original chip box from George Crum's era.
An original chip box from George Crum's era
  • Courtesy

Jameson thought it was finally time to restore his hometown of Saratoga Springs to its rightful place on the shelf among other potato chip brands. Moon Brand Original Saratoga Potato Chips are currently available at 250 retailers in the US including Dean & Deluca and Garden of Eden. The chips used Crum's original kettle chip recipe featuring golden potatoes, sea salt, and heart-healthy oils. Think of Crum next time you crunch into one.

George Crum in front of the shop he opened with profits from his newly invented fried potato chips.
George Crum in front of the shop he opened with profits from his newly invented fried potato chips.
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