On January 11, 1920 food dehydration expert A. F. Spawn hosted a banquet at Crane’s Cafe, sponsored by the Olympia Chamber of Commerce. All the food served had been dehydrated, including everything from clam chowder to coconut pudding. Prominent on the menu, however, were Saratoga chips (or potato chips). How had America’s favorite junk food earned such an illustrious place on the menu?

Now readily available in a bewildering array of flavors at grocery stores and other places, the humble potato chip had a long journey to its current place of importance. According to legend, potato chips were invented by George Crum (a noted Black/Native American chef) at a popular resort in Saratoga, New York in 1853 after a customer complained that his fried potatoes were not crisp enough. While historians agree that this story is not true, Crum did popularize the potato chip and it was commonly called the Saratoga chip in its early days.

At first, potato chips were considered an exclusive food for the rich and only available at restaurants. Tiffany & Co. even sold a silver potato chip server! Gradually chips became more popular and affordable (a five-ounce package cost a dime according to a Howey’s Cash Grocery advertisement from the August 13, 1921 Morning Olympian.) Potato chips were typically sold in wax paper and locally made. Fried in lard, they spoiled easily.

The earliest reference to Saratoga chips in Olympia was an advertisement in the April 14, 1901 issue of the Morning Olympian newspaper. People were urged to phone 97 for businessman John T. Bethel if they were interested in buying “Saratoga chips, salted peanuts, H.B. cereal coffee, granola, whole wheat sticks and a few more good things.”

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Advertisement for Saratoga Chips at the Daily Bread Shop from the Morning Olympian’s January 9, 1916 issue. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

It was the era of the corner grocery store and local groceries began to make chips for sale. “Fresh Saratoga chips at Chillberg’s” ran a series of ads in the Olympian Daily Recorder in 1905.  Bolster and Barnes listed Saratoga chips among their other offerings of pies, salads, “Fresh Imported Swiss Cheese,” cakes and bottled Capital City Creamery cream in the Morning Olympian on December 19, 1908. Reder & Phipps promised readers of the same newspaper on June 24, 1906, “Fresh Nabiscos, Cheese Sandwich[s], Saratoga Chips, Zu zus, Saltine Biscuits, Lemon Snaps and [a] full line of dainties.”

Groceries were not the only places to offer Saratoga chips. The Daily Bread Shop also made fresh chips. “We are now making our famous Saratoga Chips,” they announced in the Olympia Daily Recorder on January 1, 1916, “crisp and delicious, wholesome and appetizing. Always the best. Have some today?”

If people did not wish to buy potato chips, they could always try to make them at home. The Morning Olympian published a recipe for Saratoga chips on August 8, 1907. To make the process easier, the Olympia Daily Recorder advised on March 22, 1910 that “A boxlike utensile [sic] with crossed knife blades on the top is a new implement with which a potato can be cut into chips by a single pressure of the hand.” And since the chips were messy, “Always have a piece of blotting paper,” advised the Olympia Daily Record on April 18, 1913 “on which to lay fried oysters, croquettes, potato chips, doughnuts, etc., so that all superfluous fat may be absorbed by it and the food made more palatable.”

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The Morning Olympian published this recipe for Saratoga Chips on August 8, 1907. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

By the 1920s, however, regional companies were starting to take a bite out of the local potato chip market. The Tacoma Supply Company placed an advertisement for their Tahoma line of products in the Morning Olympian on April 20, 1922. Potato chips were listed prominently among its offerings, which included “Old fashioned southern sky hominy” and “creamed horseradish.” Another Tacoma business, Nalley’s Pure Food Products even had a booth at the Pure Food Show held at Olympia’s American Legion Hall in April 1922. Guests could sample their potato chips among salad dressings and other condiments, reassured by the slogan, “If it’s Nalley’s it’s good.”

However people got them, potato chips became a staple at event. On December 8, 1904 the Olympia Daily Recorder described a picnic held the night before in the assembly room of the People’s University. A gathering of 175 people enjoyed their food and the “Baked beans, chicken, salad, sandwiches, pickles, meats, potato chips and coffee disappeared with remarkable rapidity.”

Describing a post-hunt dinner, the Olympia Daily Recorder noted on June 8, 1914, “[Last evening] With music in their ears and ducks done just to the turn…There was [not] anything left but the bones and a few Saratoga chips when the 125 Elk men rose up from the long tables, and gave three cheers for Chef Cavanaugh and his assistants.” Potato chips were also on the menu for a pioneer women’s reunion banquet at the Woman’s Club on March 2, 1903. It included “garnished chinook salmon served whole with potato chips.”

In the 1930s things changed. National food companies became more important, edging out local and regional businesses. Potato chips became even more popular after being declared an “essential” food during World War II and were not rationed. Troops munched on chips even at the front.

More changes came after the war, with flavored chips becoming popular in the 1950s. Nowadays there are a wide variety of potato chips to choose from. From its humble beginnings in local grocery stores, the potato chip retains its crown as one of America’s favorite snacks.

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