63. George Crum. If you search for “Who invented potato chips,” the name that will pop up first and most often will be George Crum (c.1828-1914). The legend built up around him has taken on something of an “official” status, pushed by Saratoga boosters, local historians, and others. He’s also been the subject of a number of Black History Month features, usually with this formal portrait:
The “official” story comes to us in two versions: The first is that in 1853, Crum was working as a chef at the Moon’s Lake House hotel run by Cary B. Moon and his wife, Harriet, on Saratoga Lake, in upstate New York. A certain grumpy guest (later claimed to be Commodore Vanderbilt) complained that Crum’s fried potatoes were too thick, and sent them back. An annoyed Crum then shaved the potatoes as thinly as possible, fried them up, and poured salt all over them. But instead of being insulted, the guest loved them, and asked for more.
The second version of the story involves Crum’s sister, “Aunt Katie” Wicks (or Weeks), shown here with brother George in their later years:
In this version, Katie was peeling potatoes, and accidentally dropped a slice into a pan of hot fat (or a doughnut pot). She fished it out, and just then George came along and tasted it. He liked it, and proceeded to make more.
Either way, it’s a good story. It’s just that it’s probably not true. Dave Mitchell has done extensive research on George and family, and the history of the potato chip in Saratoga. He notes that some sort of potato chip was being served by the Loomis family at least by 1849, if not earlier. George and Eliza Loomis owned the Lake House before the Moons bought it. In the 1850 Census, George Crum and family (listed as “George Peck,” a spelling mistake to be explained later) lived next door, and George’s occupation was listed as “ostler,” or a hostler, i.e., the guy who took care of the horses, undoubtedly for the hotel guests at the Lake House. So he was, in a sense, there when it happened, though at the time, he was not a cook.
The story that George Crum invented the “Saratoga Chip” may have first started circulating in 1885, though it didn’t become widely known until a couple of 1928 articles, including one that went national, in the New Yorker.
But why George?
By the 1880s, George Crum was a well-known figure among the elite New York society-types who vacationed in Saratoga. His claim to fame was as an outdoorsman, a fisherman and hunter. He supplied several of the fledgling resort hotels with fresh fish and game, and may have led hunting parties in the Adirondacks as well.
Along the way, he developed his cooking chops, and in 1860, he opened his own place in Malta, near Saratoga Lake:
The George Crum House, Malta, NY
For the next 30 years, until it closed in 1890, the George Crum House did indeed serve the elites, including the Vanderbilts, Jay Gould, and Henry Hilton. But George specialized in fish and game, and didn’t even offer the potato chips that were being served at Moon’s Lake House.
In some records, George appears as George Crum, but he was born George Speck, usually appears as Speck in the census records (”Peck” in 1850), and Speck is also the name on his grave marker. He seems to have used “Crum” in a professional capacity.
Why? The usual story is that his father, Abraham, used Crum when he worked as a jockey. But there may be another explanation. George’s father, Abraham Speck, was “a well known deformed colored man,” injured in a childhood riding accident.
But that injury didn’t stop Abraham from getting into a lot of fights. From 1830 on, he was convicted of assault and battery a dozen times. The worst incident came in 1844, when it sounds as though he actually took a shot at a local tax assessor who had put a school tax levy on Abraham’s property. The incident got him sent to Sing-Sing Prison for a ten-year sentence (where he appears in the 1850 Census), but in 1851, he was pardoned by the Governor.
On this 1856 map, Abraham Speck’s farm appears in the upper left corner, just above the point where the orange, green, and red colors meet.
Abraham’s father, in turn, was John Crum, probably born c.1744. His name appears in a list of Revolutionary War veterans, and late in life, his wife, Catrina, claimed a pension for his service. When George put together his own biography for a county history, he claimed that his father was of German descent, and his mother, Diana Tull, was of Native American stock.
The truth of all of this is messy. Both George and his father were usually, though not consistently, listed as “mulatto.” It’s not clear that his mother had connections to the neighboring Mohican tribe. It’s also not clear that his grandparents, the Crums, were of German or Dutch descent. It seems more likely that they were people of color, probably of mixed ancestry.
This sketch of George Crum appeared in the New York Herald in 1889
Where did the “Speck” name come from? Abraham also used it on occasion. In the 1855 New York State Census, it appears that the census taker wrote the name as “Abram Crum,” then crossed out Crum and wrote in Speck. In the 1800 Census, when he was in Watervliet, New York, some 20 miles south of Saratoga, Abraham appears as “Abrm Speck, a free Negro.” (Note: Abraham’s birth is often dated c.1789, but his appearance as the head of a household of four in 1800 suggests that he must have been at least 21.)
Some have speculated that the “Speck” name may have come from a connection with the Speck families in the Schenectady area, perhaps as hired or enslaved servants. In any case, we can’t help but wonder if George’s professional use of the Crum name may have had more to do with putting some distance between himself and his father’s reputation as a brawler.
Did George Crum really invent the potato chip? No. But the truth is more interesting. Certainly by 1800, Abraham Speck was “a free Negro.” We forget that at one time, every colony allowed slavery, and slavery persisted in New York into the 1820s. In Watervliet in 1800, out of a total population of 4,992, there were 412 enslaved people, and only 45 “free persons of color.”
Abraham may have had his problems, but he was also the first person of color to vote in Ballston Spa after the 15th Amendment was passed. He voted in a special judicial election in 1870.
Meanwhile, George really did become a prominent chef, so much so that somewhere along the line, many people just assumed that he must have been the one who invented the potato chip. And that’s a pretty good reputation for anyone to have.