1931 Smith’s Potato Chips arrive in Australia

Smith’s Chips (then called Smith’s Crisps) were first sold in the UK by Mr Frank Smith. The potato chips he and an associate, George Ensor, launched in Australia were made in gas-fired cooking pots, and packed by hand. The early product was sold in threepenny packets with a “twist of salt” sachet.

The history of potato chips, however, goes back a lot further.  No doubt people had been frying potatoes in European countries since the Spaniards brought them back from the New World in the mid-16th century. However, it’s the Belgians who are credited with inventing the so-called “French Fry” in the 1600s.  By the late 18th century, fried potatoes, or “pommes frites” were also popular street food in France.

Recipes for a form of fried potatoes that resembled the wafer-thin snack food we now know as “potato chips” were being circulated as early as 1824. In The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randoph gave the following instructions:

Peel large potatos, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils and is still, put in the slices of potatos, and keep moving them till they are crisp; take them up, and lay them to drain on a sieve; send them up with very little salt sprinkled on them.

In England in 1855, Alexis Soyer gave a similar recipe in A Shilling Cookery for the People. He instructed the cook to cut the potatoes “into very thin slices, almost shavings” and to deep fry them in at least two inches of fat. However, both these recipes were for “fried potatoes” rather than “potato chips”.

The first known mention of “potato chips” comes from Household Words, a magazine written and produced by Charles Dickens.  The word “chips” was often applied to small pieces of food, with reference to “orange chips” being found as early as 1769. However, Dickens was the first to write about “potato chips”, in June of 1854, in an article entitled “French Domesticity”. Writing about the French housewife, he wrote:

She mixes the salad-oil, salt, and pepper are all she puts into it ; she fries the potato chips, or peeps into the pot of haricots, or sees that the spinach is clean, and the asparagus properly boiled.

His articles were reprinted in newspapers around the English-speaking world, including in America and Australia. In his novel “Tale of Two Cities”, Dickens also mentions “Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”.  Around that time, fish and chip shops began to appear in Britain, often opened by Jewish immigrants.

George Crum

About the same time that Dickens was writing about potato chips, an American chef was serving them to his customers at Moon’s Lake House, a hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York State. George Speck (or George Crum as he became known) was of Native American and African American origin. According to legend, one night in 1853 a customer in the restaurant sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen several times, complaining that they were cut too thick and weren’t crisp enough. In a fit of pique, Crum shaved the potatoes so thin that they would crumble on the fork, and over-salted them. Instead of teaching his customer a lesson, the crispy potatoes were rapturously received and soon became a specialty of the house.

Although they did eventually become known as Saratoga Chips, it’s not clear whether Crum actually called this dish ‘potato chips”. The term was in use for thin slivers of fried potato by the 1870s. A recipe for Potato Chips in the Melbourne Advocate in 1872 suggests that the potatoes be pared “ribbon-like into long lengths”.

After Crum’s “discovery” the potato chip became a delicacy served in local restaurants. Its fame spread, with chips being sold in grocery stores in Cleveland Ohio by the mid-1890s. At first, they were supplied to retailers in tins or barrels, which left those at the bottom of the barrel sad and soggy. Then, in 1926 in California, a lady named Laura Scudder developed a way of ironing waxed paper sheets together to make sealed bags. Further advances in packaging, including the invention of cellophane, led to the packet of chips familiar today.

Frank Smith may not have been the first to make potato chips in Britain, but was the first to mass market them. However, to distinguish his product from the familiar fish and chip shop product, he invented the term “crisps”. His product was launched in 1921 and, to this day, what is a potato chip to the Americans is a “crisp” to the Brits.

Smith’s Crisps on sale at Frank Duncan’s mobile cafe, Cobar c1935

Smith moved to Australia and set up a business in Surry Hills, Sydney. When Smiths were launched in Australia, they were known as crisps. They were unflavoured, sold in threepenny packets accompanied by a twist of salt, which was added by the consumer.  In 1932, the company was in receivership. However, one of Frank’s associated stepped in the rescue the company. After World War II sales boomed.

Flavoured chips were the invention of an Irish company called Tayto in the 1950s. The first flavours were Cheese & Onion and Salt ‘n’ Vinegar. In 1961 Smiths produced their first flavoured potato chips. The first flavoured variety launched in Australia was Chicken. Many other flavours were to follow.

The success of the company, of course, attracted the eye of the multinationals and, in the late 1960s, Pepsico acquired just under 50 per cent of the shareholding. Smiths became wholly owned by Pepsico, via its subsidiary Frito-Lay, in 1998.  By this time, Smith’s was the largest snack food company in Australia, with many other brands including Twisties and Burger Rings.

They were still labelled as crisps as late as 2003 (when a range of flavours linked to great Australian brands was launched). But now, bowing to the vernacular, they’re definitively “chips”.

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