Saratoga Springs, New York: Birthplace of the Potato Chip

First I have a disclaimer before we go any further.  I don’t know who made the first thin crispy fried potato and freely admit that it is not only possible, but likely that Saratoga Springs was not the first place where thin slices of potato were fried.  However I don’t think there is much room to debate that the snack we know as the potato chip was born and developed in Saratoga Springs and only then became popular around the country.

Why write still another article about the history of the Potato Chip and Saratoga Springs?  There certainly is no shortage of material on the topic and some of the stories include incredible detail covering not only when, where and how they were invented, but who was responsible for the discovery.  Unfortunately most of this information cannot be confirmed by sources created at the time of the discovery and some parts of the story just don’t stand up to scrutiny.   The fact that these stories are a mixture of myth, folklore and urban legend with a smattering of facts doesn’t make them unimportant or uninteresting.  As a matter of fact they are great stories, worthy of repeating and celebrating, as long as they are viewed as folklore and tradition. I have to admit that these stories fascinate me as much if not more than the “factual” history of the chip and I am already working on a post about them.  But this, my first blog post, explores the history of the potato chip in Saratoga Springs using contemporary sources to tell the story.

To try and avoid confusion I am going to refer to these thin fried slices of potato by the generic name chips because at various times they have been called Moon’s Fried Potatoes, Saratoga Fried Potatoes, Saratoga Chips and a few other variations before people seemed to settle on the name Potato Chips.

The earliest mention of the chip I have been able to find in Saratoga Springs is an 1849 newspaper article that historian T. J. Stiles discovered when he was researching his book, The First Tycoon:  The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  The article contains a profile of a Lake House run by Loomis & Company on the shores of Saratoga Lake; a body of water located about four miles east of Saratoga Springs’ resort hotels.  The writer explained that wealthy visitors to Saratoga Springs often drove out to Loomis’ for a few hours of recreation or for an elegant and private fish and game dinner.  While the author was very complimentary about the quality of the meals and the parties, he reserved special praise for one item on the menu and one person on the staff.

“…while the fame of “Eliza, the cook, “ for crisping potatoes has become so wide that she has frequent offers to take places of profit in the city, where her talents in this respect may be made effective.  A queer way to build up a reputation, you will say; but it is nevertheless true, that “Eliza’s” potato frying reputation is one of the prominent matters of remark at Saratoga, and scores of people visit the lake and carry away specimens of the vegetable, as prepared by her, as curiosities.  Ladies frequently pay her a handsome fee for the privilege of witnessing the mode of operation, pursued by her, so that they may instruct their cooks at home.  Eliza always takes the fee and pleasantly enough imparts the theoretic knowledge necessary for potato frying; but no lady has, as yet, been able to teach the art to her cooks at home.  Who would think that simple potatoes could be made such a luxury! and yet, Eliza is not proud of her reputation;  she is not puffed up with pride; she cooks on during the summer and has numerous standing offers to cook for nabobs of the city, at large wages, during the winter.  Who knows how many of her children, or children’s children, will here-after drive tandem to Lake Saratoga, to eat trout, woodcock and fried potatoes, under the same roof where she is now engaged in acquiring laurels.”1

It’s possible, but I think unlikely, that these potatoes were thicker than chips and were instead of chips were the thick slices that cook books of the time called fried potatoes and instructed should be fried on both sides by turning them over.  These thick fried potatoes were rather common so the writer’s excitement suggests that there was something radically different about Eliza’s fried potatoes.

Unfortunately the newspaper never mentions Eliza’s last name nor does it claim that she invented the potatoes; just that she had mastered their preparation.  The failure to mention Eliza’s last name could have just been an oversight or it is possible that it was a conscious slight because Eliza was African American.2  I think it is certainly possible that Eliza was African American, many cooks were African Americans, but I wonder if a writer in 1849 could imagine an African American’s children being served along with the wealthy visitors at the Lake House one day as the article predicted?  I think it is also at least worth mentioning that Eliza could be Eliza Loomis one of the owners of Loomis’ Lake House in 1849.  When couples owned an inn or tavern it was not unusual for the woman to work in or the run the kitchen.  But if the author was referring to Eliza Loomis that would seem to make it more likely that the writer would include her last name.

Loomis’ Lake House was new; the owners rebuilt it after a fire destroyed Loomis’ earlier Lake House on the same site in December, 1846.3  George Loomis and his wife Eliza started operating the Lake House in 1841 and teamed up with a variety of partners during the years they owned it.4  George Loomis died in June, 1849, but Eliza Loomis carried on with her partners, her brother in law Horace and his wife Abigail Loomis, George’s nephew George H. Loomis, and Gilbert and Sarah Vandercook, at the time the New York Herald article was written.5

There’s no way to know how long the Loomis’ had been serving the chips before that 1849 article was written, but the tone of the story suggests that it wasn’t something brand new.  There are some stories in newspapers about visits to the Lake House that included positive comments about the food before 1849, but nothing specific about potatoes.6  My reasonably thorough search of newspapers and other sources hasn’t uncovered any other mention of the potatoes or chips on Saratoga Lake nor anywhere else in the country before 1849.

Even though they are not mentioned anywhere it’s possible that the chips were served soon before 1849 sometime after the Loomis’ started running the Lake House in 1841.  It is also possible that the chips predate the Loomis’, since there had been a Lake House of some kind on the property as early as 1810 when James Greene was running a tavern and a ferry across the narrows of Saratoga.  By 1823 he was advertising for fishing parties from Saratoga Springs to visit Greene’s Hotel.7  But unless some new evidence appears it looks like 1849 is the “birth date” of the chip.

Over the next few years there continued to be brief mentions of parties at Loomis’, but only two more sources mention the chips.8  In a book published in 1852 George William Curtis describes the Lake House.

“A spruce, little cottage like inn, now stands upon the bank over the lake, devoted to the entertainment of men, and famous for delicate fish-dinners and fried potatoes. It is de rigueur at Saratoga to dine at the Lake — and to pay likewise. Every afternoon scores of carriages and saddle horses are tied in regular lines to the adjacent fences. Nimble hostlers and waiters in white jackets run busily about, while parties from the United States are rowing upon the lake, or sipping sherry-Cobblers on the piazza.” 9

The second story also from 1852 confirms that the chips were becoming well known and their fame was not limited to Saratoga Springs.   In Newport, another popular summer resort of the wealthy, they were serving a style of potato referred to as “Crisped Potatoes A La Saratoga Lake.”10

MOON’S LAKE HOUSE

Moon's Lake House.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper .  July 26, 1862

Moon’s Lake House. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper . July 26, 1862

Beginning in 1854 new ownership signaled the beginning of the transformation of the chip from a delicacy the Lake House was famous for, into a snack that would be imitated, reproduced on a large scale, and eventually made available around the country, not just in Lake Houses and Hotels, but in restaurants, groceries and homes.

This change in ownership happened when Eliza Loomis, George H. Loomis and Gilbert and Sarah Vandercook, sold their interests in the Lake House and Horace and Abigail Loomis after acquiring sole ownership, sold all of the shares to Cary B. and Harriet Moon in March, 1854.11

Their new property was ideally located at the end of the main road from Saratoga Springs to Saratoga Lake and near one of the principal ways to access and cross the Lake.   Cary and Harriet Moon were already experienced Saratoga Springs landlords when they bought the Lake House having operated the Eagle Hotel with Harriet’s family and running their own hotel, Montgomery Hall.  12  The prime location, the existing reputation of the House, their experience as landlords and apparently the secret recipe of the chip, all contributed to the success of Moon’s Lake House.

An article from 1860 gives an idea of how compelling some people found Moon’s Fried Potatoes.

“Before coming to Saratoga I encountered a young lady who had just completed the tour of Niagara Falls and the White Mountains.  To the question of what she had seen and found worth mentioning during her travels, she replied that the fried potatoes at Saratoga Lake were delightful.  In the course of an hour’s conversation you could pump nothing from her but fried potatoes.  The same enthusiasm prevails with everyone you meet.  The livery-keeper urges you to hire a horse and ride or drive to the lake, and his main argument is ‘Fried Potatoes’.”13

The Lake House became even more popular as a place for the elegant private parties hosted by Saratoga Springs rich and famous visitors.  Recognizing that the size of the Lake House, limited the number and size of parties, and the fact only the wealthy could afford the dinners, the Moon’s developed another source of revenue.  They succeeded in attracting other visitors, both wealthy and just well off to enjoy the bowling alleys, fishing equipment, trout ponds, row boats, and sail boats they offered.  The grounds featured paths, awning shaded patches of lawn and little summer houses to relax under and enjoy cool breezes and the view of the Lake.14   The Moon’s offered beverages such as lemonade, cobblers, and juleps and plates of their famous fried potatoes all served on the piazzas surrounding the Lake House and on the grounds.  Reports claimed that by 1870 the dinners, often costing from $600 to $800 each, were bringing in $70,000 a year and the refreshments and chips served on the piazzas brought in an additional $6,000.15

CHIPS TO GO

Moon's Lake House. New York Public Library

Moon’s Lake House. New York Public Library

It’s not clear if the next development in the history of the chip in Saratoga Springs was driven by inspiration on the part of the Moon’s or just an answer to the demands of their visitors.  Cary Moon later remembered that his patrons asked for samples to carry home and to their hotels.  And they would tip their waiters for extra quantities.16 By 1866 the Moon’s were packaging their chips in a paper cornucopia like the one’s confectioners used to sell candy.   Now chips could be purchased and taken away by visitors who did not have a table, just wanted some light refreshment for the trip back to the hotels, or thought they would share them with friends later.17  These cornucopias sold for twenty five cents each, an expensive treat, but it gave those who weren’t invited to one of the private parties or couldn’t afford a fish and game dinner at Moon’s a taste of what the rich and famous were eating.18  One of the many questions I have not been able to find an answer to is when the chips started to be served cold, but the descriptions of the cornucopias suggest that this may also be the time that chips started to be eaten cold as well as hot.19

THEIR FAME SPREADS

Newspapers from around the country sent writers year after year to report on the happenings in Saratoga Springs and other newspapers enthusiastically reprinted their reports.  Many of the visitors to Saratoga Springs were the celebrities of the day because of their wealth, social standing, political power or fame as businessmen.  Many of the reports of their activities while in Saratoga Springs included the private parties at Moon’s, the afternoon drives to the Lake, and descriptions of the Fried Potatoes served at Moons including the new and seeming unusual cornucopias.  This of course spread the chip’s fame far wider than just the experience of visitors to Moon’s ever could.  Soon people wanted to try chips for themselves so attempts were made to duplicate Saratoga Fried Potatoes at other Lake Houses and hotels at Saratoga Springs and around the country.

Apparently duplicating the chips wasn’t easy to do.  During the 1850s and 1860s the secret of how the chips were prepared was closely guarded and other Lake Houses and restaurants didn’t seem to be able to successfully imitate Moon’s.20  It may have been Harriet Moon who safe guarded the secret, because soon after her death in 1869 details started to emerge about the process.21  By 1870 parts of the process for making the chips started to appear in some newspapers, letting the potato slices soak in cold water and then thoroughly drying them before frying them.22  And in July, 1871 Cary Moon revealed what he claimed to be the secret, which was repeated in numerous newspapers around the country.23  He confirmed some of the earlier information suggesting they be cut as thin as paper, soaked in ice water overnight, and wiped dry with a towel, but the new piece of information was that they were put in a warm dark oven where they dried to a crisp before being fried.24    The recipe started to appear in newspapers and cook books, but surprisingly giving away the secret didn’t dramatically hurt sales since in the summer of 1872 Moon managed to sell 13,000 of the cornucopias, in spite of the fact that the hotels offered chips that some claimed were just as good, and they were free.25  Was it the fact that many still thought Moon’s tasted better or was it just the association with the famous Lake House that continued to compel people buy Moon’s chips at twenty five cents a cornucopia?

SARATOGA CHIPS

Most of the discussion of the history of fried potatoes at the Lake has referred to them as Saratoga Chips, but it actually took some time before Saratoga Fried Potatoes started to be called Saratoga Chips.  The first use of Saratoga Chips that I have been able to find is in the April 18, 1874 issue of the Hudson Evening Register where Toone’s Saratoga Fried Potato Chips for hotels, restaurants and families were advertised.26

During the 1870s both terms, Saratoga Fried Potatoes and Saratoga Chips were used, but gradually Saratoga Chips became the more popular name on menus, newspapers and in cook books.27

When Chips were first sold in stores the businesses may have been supplied by someone preparing chips in their home, but the demand quickly grew enough to require small factories to be set up.28  Larger operations such as the Revere Chip Factory in Lynn Massachusetts and Peerless Saratoga Chips, existed by 1878 and the Chicago Saratoga Chip Company was doing business as early as 1880.29

Even though the chip was now available around the country, they still remained popular at Moon’s; in 1884 at least one newspaper thought they were still the best.30  The only money that the Moon’s seem to have made from the chips was from the actual sale of the chips at the Lake House and any increase in business generated by the fame of the Lake House and its chips.  There is no sign that there was any effort by the Moon’s to try and license or patent the process of making the chips and it seems unlikely they would have had much success if they had attempted it.

There is a box in the collection of the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs that on the surface looks like Cary Moon may have made an attempt to market his chips to wider audience than just the visitors to the Lake House.  The box of Moon Brand Saratoga Chips made by the Saratoga Specialties Company of Saratoga Springs was discovered in the wall of a Saratoga Springs home during a renovation in 1977.31 However I don’t believe this venture had anything to do with Cary Moon.  There are some dates on the box, Jan 29, 1884-1892, which don’t seem to correspond to any dates associated with Moon’s Lake House that I am aware of.  I believe the box dates from after 1893 since the image of Moon’s Lake House on the top of the box seems to be of the Lake House built in 1893, not the pre 1893 structure.  And there is some other evidence that supports a later date, probably after Cary Moon’s death in January, 1895.  32   Three Saratoga Springs men, John Shipman, William A Pierson, and Samuel B. Archer incorporated the Saratoga Specialties Company in 1902 and among a laundry list of things they were to manufacture and sell were Saratoga Chips.33  I don’t believe this particular venture was very successful since the only trace I can find of the product is a mention in a Glens Falls Newspaper in August of 1904.  The brief notice describes the image of Moon’s Lake House on the cover of the box and announces that Kinney the Spring Water man had the original Moon Brand Chips for sale for 15 cents each.34

In the years after Harriet Moon’s death Cary Moon continued to run the Lake House with his sons Charles and Henry.35  While on the surface everything seemed successful there were some financial troubles and Cary had some serious health problems.  36  These issues combined with Henry Moon’s unexpected death in December 1881 may have played a role in Cary Moon finally selling his Lake House.37

Apparently for a time in 1883 and 1884 the property was close to being sold, but a deal was finely made with John Foley of Saratoga Springs and Edward Kearney of New York and Saratoga Springs in August, 1885.38

Foley and Kearney did not run the Lake House, which they continued under Moon’s name, themselves.  Eventually they hired Hiram Thomas, the African American head waiter of the Grand Union Hotel, to manage the Lake House.  It didn’t take long for Hiram Thomas to move from manager to leasee and he began to run the Lake House on his own behalf.39

Moon's Lake House 1893 - 1908 Collection of Brookside Museum, Saratoga County Historical Society

Moon’s Lake House 1893 – 1908
Collection of Brookside Museum, Saratoga County Historical Society

In May 1893, while Thomas’ was still running it, the 53 year old Lake House burned down.  The business must have still been successful because within a few months it was rebuilt and open for business again, this time as the New Lake House.40  But it seems that its glory days may have been behind it, Thomas’ last year operating the Lake House was 1895.  There were a series of new owners, short term leases and managers until June, 1908 when for the third time a Lake House on the property burned.  This time there was no effort to rebuild and the land stood vacant for most of the century.41

POTATO CHIPS

The earliest description of the fried potatoes at Moon’s Lake House that I have found to use the term Potato Chips was in 1872.42  However the name didn’t seem to immediately catch on, it was a gradual process.  Beginning around the turn of the century Saratoga Chips started to appear on fewer menus and advertisements and Potato Chips became the more popular name for the snack food born on Saratoga Lake.  Even though you will very seldom hear them called Saratoga Chips today, the connection survives between Saratoga Springs and the chip for many people.  Part of this may be explained by the promotional efforts of various Snack Food Industry groups who promoted the connection in the 1950, 60s and 70s, the new Saratoga Chips made by a Saratoga Springs Company, and the fascinating web of myths about the creation of the Potato Chip and the very interesting people such as George Crum and Kate Wicks who are credited with their invention.

That’s what I’m working on for my next post, examining some of the stories of the birth of the chip, a look at where the stories came from and to try and sort out what may be true, and what may just be legend.

My research, still a work in progress, wouldn’t have gotten this far without help from the staff and volunteers of several great organizations and some dedicated individuals;

Joy Houle, Kathleen Coleman, Anne Clothier and Kim McCartney from the Saratoga County Historical Society
Jane Meader Nye and Lauren Roberts from the Saratoga County Historians Office
Paul Perreault, Malta Town Historian
Saratoga County Clerk’s Office
Saratoga County Surrogates Court
Teri Blasko from the Saratoga History Room at the Saratoga Springs Public Library,
Mary Ann Fitzgerald, City of Saratoga Springs Historian,
James Parillo, Historical Society of Saratoga Springs.
Ken Perry who has done extensive work on the early African American community in the Capital District
Shelia Powless from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.
Melissa Tacke, from the Grems-Doolittle Library Schenectady Historical Society
Ruth Ann Messick,
Roy Arnold and Rachel Clothier who have been great resources about Malta Ridge,
Any mistakes are mine and please feel free to post a comment or email me if you discover one of them or if you have something to add.

©2013 David Mitchell


  1. “Notes from the Watering Places,” New York Herald, August 2, 1849 

  2. “Q&A with T.J. Stiles, insidevandy.com,” October 3, 2010.  T. J. Stiles put forth the possibility that Eliza was African American in this profile. 

  3. “Saratoga Lake House Destroyed by Fire,” Schenectady Cabinet, December 22, 1846. 

  4. New York. Town of Saratoga Springs Excise Commission 1842 George Loomis and Arba Simmons. New York: Saratoga County. Deeds RR: 189. Sheriff to Simmons, and TT: 397 Simmons to Loomis. 

  5. New York:  Saratoga County. Surrogates Court, George C. Loomis.  New York: Saratoga County. Deeds ZZ: 226. 

  6. “Saratoga Correspondence,” New York Herald, August 3, 1842 and “Correspondence Commercial Advertiser,” Commercial Advertiser, July 27, 1844. 

  7. Saratoga Sentinel, February 27 1810 and Saratoga Sentinel, July 22, 1823 

  8. “The Watering Places,” New York Herald, July 22 1847 

  9. Dana, Charles.  Meyer’s Universium (New York:  Hermann J. Meyer, 1852.)  

  10. “The Watering Places,” New York Herald, July 21 1852 

  11. New York. Saratoga County. Deeds 58: 155 and 61: 336 and Loomis to Moon 68: 72.  “Fashionable Saratoga,” Troy Daily Times, August 18 1882 

  12. New York. Town of Saratoga Springs, Excise Commission, 1839, Cary Moon Eagle Hotel and New York. Saratoga County. Deeds TT: 215 White to Moon Montgomery Hall. 

  13. “Life At Saratoga,” New York Times, September 7, 1860 

  14. National Era, August 25, 1859, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 3, 1859, Daily Saratogian, August 31 1860, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 26 1862. 

  15. Saratogian, September 22, 1870 

  16. “Saratoga Springs,” Troy Daily Times, December 14, 1889 

  17. “Saratoga Races,” New York Herald, July 27 1866 

  18. “Saratoga Springs,” Troy Daily Times, December 14, 1889 

  19. New York Times, July 15 1873.  Served Cold and “Saratoga Springs,” Times Picayune, July 28 1895 still served warm some places 

  20. “Letter from Saratoga,” Boston Post, August 10, 1865 

  21. Saratogian, October 7, 1869 

  22. “From Saratoga,” Albany Evening Journal, July 29, 1870 

  23. “State Items,” Buffalo Daily Courier, August 4, 1871 

  24. Commercial Advertiser, July 1871.  I haven’t been able to locate the original column, but it is reprinted in a collection of the authors work.  Melville D. Landon, Saratoga in 1901 ( New York:  Leggo & Co, 1871)  

  25. “Summer At The Springs,” New York Times, July 15 1873. 

  26. “A Delicious Delicacy,” Hudson Evening Register, April 18, 1874. 

  27. Saratoga Sentinel, July 31 1873 and Marion Star, November 23, 1878 “The Week,” Baltimore Bulletin, August 22, 1874 and “The Fast Mail,” Inter Ocean, September 17, 1875 

  28. New York Herald, December 24, 1878 

  29. North American, August 6, 1878, Macon Telegraph October, 29 1878, The Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago 1880 p. 1441 

  30. “Cool Saratoga Breezes,” New York Times, July 7 1884.  

  31. “Spa History Seen in Times Square,” Times Union, September 8, 1992 

  32. Troy Daily Times, January 12 1895 

  33. New York. Saratoga County, Articles of Incorporation 2: 320 

  34. Morning Star, August 5 1904 

  35. New York: Saratoga County. Deeds 147: 104 C. B. Moon to Henry Moon.  Saratogian, June 8 1871. Charles and C. B. Moon Excise License. 

  36. New York. Saratoga County Clerk. Lis Pendens, 5: 128,  Saratogian, June 17 1882 Mortgage Sale, New York Times, June 20, 1879 Cary Moon Ill,  Saratogian, November 10, 1877 Cary Moon Ill, 

  37. Saratogian, December 30, 1881 

  38. Brooklyn Daily Union, September 5 1882, Saratogian July 3, 1885, New York. Saratoga County Clerk. Deeds 171: 180 Agreement to Purchase and  Saratoga County Clerk’s Deeds 171: 400 Moon to Kearny and Foley. 

  39. Troy Daily Times, May 11, 1888 

  40. Schuylerville Standard, May 17 1893 and New York Herald, August 19 1894. 

  41. New York Press, July 16 1893, Saratogian, June 3, 1908. 

  42. “The Barnard Impeachment,” Morning Telegraph, August 18 1872.