Unveiling the Inventors Behind America’s Favorite Snacks

Indisputably, the United States has made a tremendous contribution to the world of snacks. The richness of the snack culture unfolds a fascinating journey that traverses myriad eras, regions, and societal influences. From childhood memories entwined with the sweet aroma of marshmallows roasting on an open fire, to a football game that would be incomplete without nachos, American snacks have interwoven themselves into the fabric of everyday life. This exploration promises to take you on a flavorful adventure through the riveting background of these comfort foods, the audacious inventors behind them, their significant impact on American food culture, and their evolution and popularity in the present day.

Historical Background of American Snacks

Popcorn: Charles Cretors

The birth of popcorn, one of the most beloved snacks in America, came about in the late 19th century at the hands of a businessman named Charles Cretors. Cretors, who hailed from Ohio, initially started out with a small painting venture but soon ventured into the food business by selling roasted peanuts. The innovation came forth when Cretors invented a steam-powered roasting machine for chestnuts and peanuts. His machine’s steam engine capability was soon repurposed to pop corn kernels evenly, something that was uncommon in the open-flame popcorn popping of the time. Cretors took his invention to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where his popcorn machine, coupled with a mixture of butter, salt, and popcorn, became a massive hit. The ubiquitous love for popcorn, especially in movie theaters, can be attributed to Charles Cretors and his culinary invention.

Chocolate Chip Cookies: Ruth Graves Wakefield

Chocolate chip cookies, a cherished American treat, owe their existence to the ingenuity of Ruth Graves Wakefield. Wakefield, a dietitian and food lecturer, and her husband operated the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, during the 1930s, where she gained recognition for her homemade desserts. The creation of the chocolate chip cookie was both accidental and groundbreaking. One day, while baking cookies, Wakefield realized she had run out of baker’s chocolate. In a creative improvisation, she decided to substitute it with chopped semi-sweet chocolate, anticipating it would melt uniformly into the batter. Instead, she unwittingly gave rise to a cookie dough adorned with chocolate morsels, thereby unintentionally inventing the iconic chocolate chip cookie. Wakefield eventually sold her recipe to Nestlé, and to this day, her original formula can be found on the packaging of Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate morsels.

Peanut Butter: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg


Chocolate chip cookies, a cherished American treat, owe their existence to the ingenuity of Ruth Graves Wakefield. Wakefield, a dietitian and food lecturer, and her husband operated the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, during the 1930s, where she gained recognition for her homemade desserts. The creation of the chocolate chip cookie was both accidental and groundbreaking. One day, while baking cookies, Wakefield realized she had run out of baker’s chocolate. In a creative improvisation, she decided to substitute it with chopped semi-sweet chocolate, anticipating it would melt uniformly into the batter. Instead, she unwittingly gave rise to a cookie dough adorned with chocolate morsels, thereby unintentionally inventing the iconic chocolate chip cookie. Wakefield eventually sold her recipe to Nestlé, and to this day, her original formula can be found on the packaging of Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate morsels.

George Crum: The Inventor of Potato Chips

In the heart of the 19th century, a culinary marvel took shape under the skilled hands of George Crum, a chef of African and Native American heritage. The thin, crunchy, and salty potato chip, a snack integral to American culture, was born in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York. While working at Moon’s Lake House, Crum devised the snack in reply to a unhappy customer who kept returning his french-fried potatoes, lamenting they were too soft and thick.

To appease this patron, Crum transformed the common potato into something extraordinary. He thinly sliced it, fried it to a crisp, and generously sprinkled salt over the top. Contrary to what Crum predicted, his creation was met with an enthusiastic response. The customer hailed these ‘Saratoga Chips’, and thus, potato chips came into existence. This accidental invention soon traveled beyond the walls of Moon’s Lake House, becoming a perennial favorite throughout the United States.

A collection of popular snacks such as popcorn, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter, and potato chips, representing the text above.

Individual Inventors and Their Creations

Ruth Graves Wakefield: The Woman Behind Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fast forward to the year 1938, the United States was treated to another delectable surprise courtesy of Ruth Graves Wakefield. An accomplished dietitian, talented food lecturer, and co-owner of a renowned restaurant, the Toll House Inn, in Whitman, Massachusetts, Wakefield was known for her creative recipes and impressive culinary acumen. However, her enduring legacy rests on one serendipitous discovery: the Chocolate Chip Cookie.

While working in her kitchen one day, she found herself in a predicament—a shortage of baker’s chocolate. Not one to get flustered, Wakefield thought on her feet. She chopped up a semi-sweet chocolate bar and added the pieces to the cookie dough, expecting them to melt and spread evenly while baking. But the chocolate chunks held their shape, turning gooey and soft amidst the perfectly baked dough. This gave birth to the very first Chocolate Chip Cookie—a sweet treat that tasted like pure bliss.

Wakefield’s innovative recipe was nothing short of a sensation. Its popularity grew leaps and bounds, leading to an agreement with Nestlé in 1939. Nestlé got the rights to print her recipe on their packaging, and Wakefield, the creator of the delectable delight, was promised a lifetime supply of Nestlé Chocolate. This mutually beneficial agreement instigated the industrial-scale production of chocolate chip cookies, solidifying them as an iconic American indulgence.

George Crum: Inventor of Potato Chips

Another beloved American snack, the potato chip, was invented by Native American-African chef George Crum in the mid-1800s. Crum was born on July 15, 1822, in Saratoga County, New York. He worked as a hunter, guide, and finally as a chef at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs.

The crispy potato chip came into existence on a busy day in 1853, almost serendipitously. A frustrated diner complained that Crum’s French fries were too thick and soft. In response, Crum thinly sliced the potatoes, fried them to a crisp, and then heavily salted them. Contrary to Crum’s expectations, the customer loved the dish. Soon, these chips, originally referred to as “Saratoga Chips,” became a hot favorite at the restaurant. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that potato chips started being mass-produced for home consumption.

Frank Epperson: The Mastermind Behind Popsicles

Our look at creators of beloved American snacks begins with Frank Epperson, the inventive genius behind the universally treasured Popsicle. Epperson, born in 1894, stumbled upon his revolutionary creation completely by accident when he was merely 11 years old, positioning him among the youngest inventors of famed snacks. One brisk evening in San Francisco, 1905, young Epperson accidentally left out a stirred concoction of powdered soda and water. By morning, the frozen temperatures had turned his mixture into a delectable treat on a stick which he initially named the “Epsicle”.

The commercial potential of Epperson’s creation only dawned on him in 1923. After successfully introducing his icy delight at a fireman’s ball and subsequently at Neptune Beach amusement park in California, the sheer popularity of his “Epsicles,” particularly among children, inspired Epperson to patent his creation in 1924. As a tribute to their father’s invention, Epperson’s children dubbed the frozen treat “Popsicle”. It transpired from an innocent childhood accident into an iconic chill antidote for hot days, with Americans consuming millions of Popsicles each year.

Historical image showing the inventors of popular snacks standing together, Ruth Wakefield holding a chocolate chip cookie, George Crum holding a plate of potato chips, and Frank Epperson holding a Popsicle.

Photo by joshuabedford on Unsplash

Impact of Their Inventions on American Food Culture

Ruth Graves Wakefield: The Pioneer of Chocolate Chip Cookies

Our journey continues with Ruth Graves Wakefield, credited as the originator of the cherished chocolate chip cookie. Wakefield, who co-owned the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts and was renowned as a dietician and food lecturer, serendipitously concocted the iconic snack in the 1930s. In the midst of baking traditional chocolate cookies, Wakefield ran short of baker’s chocolate. With impressive ingenuity, she tossed in the available chopped chocolate, anticipating it to melt completely. However, the chunks maintained their form, consequently bestowing the cookie with a unique texture. This unplanned delight revolutionized the food industry, resulting in an upsurge in production of ready-to-bake cookies and triggering an array of dessert innovations.

C. E. Doolin: The Pioneer behind Fritos Corn Chips

The invention of Fritos Corn Chips is credited to Charles Elmer Doolin. Doolin, who owned a struggling ice-cream-and-confectionery shop in San Antonio, Texas, found an ad for a corn chip recipe during the 1930s. He bought the recipe for $100, made some modifications, and eventually started mass production. Fritos became a staple snack, playing a prominent role in introducing Mexican-inspired food to wider American culture. Today, Fritos can be found in various dishes, including Texas’s iconic Frito Pie, demonstrating their assimilation into the American culinary landscape.

Herman Lay: The Man behind Lay’s Potato Chips

Lay’s potato chips, one of America’s favorite snacks, were introduced by Herman Lay in the 1930s. Consumed at picnics, parties, and daily as a quick snack, Lay’s chips have not only contributed to the rise in the potato farming industry but also influenced many dietary habits within the country. Herman advocated for the product by personally delivering them to various vendors in his own Model A. The company’s innovative marketing strategies, such as television commercials and in-store advertising, have set a precedent for snack promotion.

J.H. Kellogg: The Mastermind behind Corn Flakes

John Harvey Kellogg is credited with inventing Corn Flakes in the late 19th century. Initially, Kellogg, a proponent of health and the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, created the cereal as a nutritious option for his patients. Surprisingly, it sparked the rise of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, significantly altering American breakfast traditions. The cereal industry in the United States owes much of its tremendous expansion to Kellogg’s groundbreaking innovation.

From Hand-Dipped to Mass-Produced: Frank Mars, Inventor of Mars Bars and M&M’s.

American sweet tooth owes a great deal to Frank C. Mars who brought to life some of the nation’s favorite treats: Mars Bars and M&M’s. He learned the craft of hand-dipping chocolates from his mother and made his journey from a small kitchen in Tacoma, Washington in 1911 to the thriving Mars company. Mars reshaped the candy industry with his innovative creations like the Milky Way bar. His real departure from the ordinary was in the ingredients he used that went beyond plain chocolate. Not stopping at this, Frank Mars and his son Forrest Mars introduced another groundbreaking confectionery in the 1940s – the M&M’s, famous for their unique, melt-resistant chocolate coating.

A series of images showing the history and evolution of popular snacks throughout the years.

Current Status of the Inventions

A Century of Sugar: The Creation and Evolution of the Oreo Cookie

Intersecting the journey of America’s beloved snacks, we come to another sweet invention that’s over a century old – the Oreo cookie. In 1912, Nabisco, then known as the National Biscuit Company, introduced these filled delights targeting British customers who loved sandwiched cookies. The brainchild of Sam Porcello, the Oreo cookie has transitioned through various transformations including Double Stuf, Oreo Thins, and an intriguing mint flavor.

While the basic design of two chocolate wafers with a creamy center hasn’t seen any drastic changes, modernization did touch upon the packaging with the introduction of a resealable, easy-to-pull tab. In a fast-evolving world, the Oreo brand remains relevant by leveraging modern advertising campaigns and digital engagement strategies, further solidifying its top spot in the confectionery market. However, the heart of the Oreo remains unchanged in its appeal, as evidenced by the astounding production of over 40 billion cookies each year.

The Rise and Revamp of Cheez-It Crackers

Inventor Green Adair launched the Cheez-It crackers in Dayton, Ohio, in 1921. Owned by Kellogg’s, Cheez-Its have undergone various formulation changes over the years to include various flavors like white cheddar and hot & spicy, to name a few. The box packaging remains a mainstay, but snack-sized portions have been introduced for modern on-the-go convenience.

Cheez-It’s current marketing strategy involves tapping into the influx of digitally native millennials via social media campaigns, product collaborations, and sports sponsorships. Despite these changes, the primary Cheez-It cracker remains a well-loved munch for Americans, ranking as the number one salty snack cracker brand in the U.S.

Pop-Tarts: From Toaster Pastries to Cultural Icon

Since their inception in the 1960s, Pop-Tarts have been redefining breakfast for Americans. Invented by Post Cereals and later perfected by Kellogg’s, Pop-Tarts initially only had four flavors but have since evolved to include over 30 different varieties. The formulation changes primarily involve the filling while the primary components – the pastry, the sweet filling, and frosting – remain consistent.

Nostalgic packaging has been a principal element of Pop-Tarts, with only slight tweaks to the overall design, including a front display window to entice customers. However, the brand now offers mini versions known as “Pop-Tarts bites” for those seeking a smaller treat.

The marketing strategy of Pop-Tarts has shifted from television commercials to engaging social media campaigns. Despite this strategic shift, Pop-Tarts maintain a dominating presence in the toaster pastry market, proving the enduring popularity of this beloved snack.

MM’s: From WWII Staples to Iconic Candy

Forrest Mars, Sr., created M&M’s during World War II to enable soldiers to carry chocolate without them melting. Over time, the formulation expanded from plain chocolate to include variants like peanut, almond, and caramel. The packaging has also been updated to feature resealable bags for freshness and convenience.

The M&M’s brand has always been innovative with its marketing, introducing beloved characters like Red, Yellow, and Green that consumers associate with the brand. In recent years, it has used experiential marketing, such as M&M’s World Stores, to guarantee its continued relevance in the fast-changing confectionery industry. Even with these changes, M&M’s remains a beloved candy worldwide, signifying the lasting appeal of this tasty innovation.

A collage of various food brand logos

As our appetizing journey through the world of American snacks concludes, it is evident that these humble munchies are much more than just food items. They symbolize an array of regional influences, socio-economic circumstances, and culinary innovations. The creators of these iconic snacks, in augmenting the American food landscape, have also bequeathed a part of their legacy ingrained in taste-buds and hearts alike. Their respective inventions continue to be cherished and honored, witnessing revamps in their formulation, undergoing changes in design, and evolving marketing strategies to remain timeless and treasured. Piquant, sweet, crunchy, or smooth; it’s not just a snack, it’s an American tradition.

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