Who Invented Potato Chips?

Herman Lay Didn't Invent the Chip, but He' Sold a Lot of Them

Utz-brand, Grandma's Kettle-Cooked style potato chips.

Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons 

Legend has it that the potato chip was born out of a tiff between a little-known cook and one of the wealthiest people in American history. 

The incident was alleged to have taken place on August 24, 1853. George Crum, who was half African and half native American, was working as a cook at a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York at the time. During his shift, a disgruntled customer kept sending back an order of french fries, complaining that they were too thick. Frustrated, Crum prepared a new batch using potatoes that were sliced paper thin and fried to a crisp. Surprisingly, the customer, who happened to be railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, loved it.

However, that version of events was contradicted by his sister Kate Speck Wicks. In fact, no official accounts ever proved that Crum claimed to have invented the potato chip. But in Wick's obituary, it was stated flatly that "she first invented and fried the famous Saratoga Chips," also known as potato chips. Besides that, the first popular reference to potato chips can be found in the novel "A Tale Of Two Cities," written by Charles Dickens. In it, he refers to them as “husky chips of potatoes.”

In any case, potato chips did not gain widespread popularity until the 1920s. Around that time, an entrepreneur from California named Laura Scudder began selling chips in wax paper bags that were sealed with a warm iron in order to reduce crumbling while keeping the chips fresh and crisp. Over time, the innovative packaging method allowed for the first time the mass production and distribution of potato chips, which began in 1926. Today, chips are packaged in plastic bags and pumped with nitrogen gas to extend the product's shelf life. The process also helps prevent the chips from getting crushed.

During the 1920s, an American businessman from North Carolina named Herman Lay began selling potato chips out of the trunk of his car to grocers across the south. By 1938, Lay was so successful that his Lay's brand chips went into mass production and eventually became the first successfully marketed national brand. Among the company's biggest contributions is the introduction of a crinkle-cut "Ruffled" chips product that tended to be sturdier and thus less prone to breakage. 

It wasn't until the 1950s though that stores started carrying potato chips in various flavors. This was all thanks to Joe "Spud" Murphy, the owner of an Irish chip company named Tayto. He developed a technology that allowed seasoning to be added during the cooking process. The first seasoned potato chip products came in two flavors: Cheese & Onion and Salt & Vinegar. Pretty soon, several companies would express interest in securing the rights to Tayto's technique.  

In 1963, Lay’s Potato Chips left a memorable mark on the country's cultural consciousness when the company hired advertising company Young & Rubicam to come up with the popular trademark slogan "Betcha can’t eat just one.” Soon sales went international with a marketing campaign that featured celebrity actor Bert Lahr in a series of commercials in which he played various historical figures such as George Washington, Ceasar, and Christopher Columbus. 

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Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented Potato Chips?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-potato-chips-1991777. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). Who Invented Potato Chips? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-potato-chips-1991777 Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented Potato Chips?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-potato-chips-1991777 (accessed March 28, 2023).