Potato Chips: Hiram Thomas

65. As we have seen in our earlier segments on George Crum and Emeline Jones, there is some general agreement that potato chips were invented in the Saratoga area, and probably in connection with an establishment known as Moon’s Lake House. But from there, the history gets murky.

The notion that Hiram Thomas (c.1834-1907) invented potato chips first popped up in an 1895 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune, which mentions an African American (definitely not the article’s original term!) who was serving potato chips at a Saratoga hotel. It doesn’t identify Thomas by name, but he was the man in charge at the time. The notion came up again in Thomas’ 1907 obituary, which was carried in newspapers across the country, even in distant towns like Salt Lake City.

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Thomas’ association with Saratoga doesn’t go back far enough to allow for him to have done it c.1849, when the potato chip seems to have first appeared. Even if he had been there, he would have been a teenager, and it’s doubtful that any Saratoga cook would have let a teenager into a kitchen to do anything more involved that tote firewood or water.

So how did Thomas’ name get connected with the invention of Saratoga Chips?

Thomas had managed Moon’s Lake House restaurant in the 1880s, and then leased it from 1888-1894. It’s this association with the restaurant that popularized (and perhaps invented) the Saratoga Chips, that led to the notion that Thomas was the one who had invented them. But, as we have seen with George Crum and Emeline Jones, the real story about Hiram Thomas is more important than any mythology about inventing potato chips.

Thomas was born in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada c.1834. (The 1900 Census gives his birthdate as October 1834, but other sources suggest 1837-1838.) That means he was born free. In most of the census records, it says that both parents were born in Canada too, but in one of the 1880 census records (he shows up twice), it says that his father was born in Maryland, suggesting that his father could have escaped his enslavement and made his way to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

It’s not clear when Thomas came to the U.S. According to his obituary, Thomas was a steward at the Capitol Club, in Washington, D.C., where he served President Grant. Grant was President from 1869 to 1877.

No matter when it happened, Hiram’s stay in Washington may have been brief. We do know that by the 1870 Census, Hiram was working as a hotel steward in Manhattan. By 1870, he’d been married about five years. He and his wife, Julia Seaman, were living with her parents in Oyster Bay, along with the first two of what ultimately grew into a family of ten children.

Julia was also born free. I found the Seaman family in Oyster Bay in the 1840, 1850, and 1860 Censuses. Julia appears twice in the 1860 Census, once as living at home, and then again as an 11-year old servant in the home of William T. Frost. The Frosts were one of the old upper-crust families of Oyster Bay.

By 1880, Hiram had moved up to one of the top rungs on the ladder of restaurant success. The family was living in Manhattan, but Hiram was also spending the summer season in Saratoga Springs, where he was the head waiter at the Grand Union Hotel.

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At the time, the Grand Union was probably the largest hotel in the world. It had 824 rooms and could accommodate 1800 or more guests. The average room was affordable, at around $120 in 2015 dollars, but some of the cottage rooms went for the equivalent of $2900 a night.

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The dining room could seat from 1200-1400 guests. As head waiter, Thomas was in charge of a staff of 35 cooks, 200 waiters, and others. The daily feasts he had to oversee are hard for us to comprehend, as is suggested by an 1865 menu (before his time there), featuring a ten-course meal:

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An indicator of Thomas’ success can be found in the fact that the Saratoga newspaper consistently referred to him as “Mr. Hiram Thomas.” It’s hard to imagine a southern paper, even well into the 20th century, using the Mister title for an African American.

From the Grand Union and the Moon’s Lake House, Thomas went on to the Lakewood Hotel, in Monmouth Co., New Jersey. Just as the upper crust of New York society spent their summers at Saratoga, The Lakewood was becoming an important winter destination.

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One correspondent from Saratoga was delighted to find Thomas at the Lakewood, and wrote back to the local paper, “It is no small honor, you must understand, to have the dignified head waiter in a big hotel devote his time to you and even stop to talk with you.”

On the heels of all this professional success, Thomas rewarded himself in 1894 with a new house in Fort Greene Place in Brooklyn.

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But he soon found out that his white neighbors didn’t want him there. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, “Every householder was indignant and in the first heat of excitement many harsh things were said.” The bottom line was that they were afraid his presence would decrease their property values. The opposition was led by Emma Andiron, said to be the first woman doctor in Brooklyn. One would think a pioneering woman doctor would understand prejudice…but no.

A local pastor, who had once been an assistant to the abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, stuck up for Thomas, and wrote that Brooklyn was behaving disgracefully. Thomas never moved in. After a couple of months, he sold the house, and the family settled in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. Hiram died in 1907. Julia was still there in 1910, along with most of her children, all adults by then, and unmarried.

Housing discrimination has never obeyed traditional North-South lines. Even in 2015, the Department of Housing & Urban Development estimated that there are over two million cases of housing discrimination each year, though less than one percent are reported.

The problem is that on an individual basis, discrimination is hard to prove. If your name is Shaniqua, and the landlord says he doesn’t have any apartments open, it’s hard to prove discrimination unless you call back and tell him your name is Hillary, and suddenly, you find out that half the building is empty.

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A major provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 is the concept of disparate impact. In other words, we don’t have to prove we that can read someone’s mind and discern discriminatory thoughts. But we can look at the effects of housing practices and see if there’s a pattern of discrimination going on. In June 2015, the Supreme Court upheld this part of the law. Nonetheless, housing discrimination remains a problem, just as it was 120 years ago for one of the nation’s great restaurateurs.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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