According to multiple sources, the crispy treats were first served up at Moon's Lake House, a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1853 — and their invention was an accident, or by some accounts a spiteful prank.
The cook at Moon's was George Crum (he was born George Speck, but he adopted the name Crum because his father had used it as a professional name as well). Depending on which account you read, Crum was either African-American or Native American or both. Crum's sister, Katie Specks Wick, also worked in the kitchen at Moon's.
One of the most popular dishes at Moon's was "fried potatoes," described as what today would be considered thick-cut french fries.
Legend has it that one summer day in 1853 a wealthy diner ordered the potatoes. Crum prepared an order and sent them to the table. The diner complained they were too thick and requested a redo. Crum prepared another order, sliced thinner. Again they were sent back. Crum then sliced potatoes paper thin and fried them until they were crispy — too crispy for a gentleman to eat with a fork — and laid on the salt. But rather than be disgusted or confounded, the diner found them delightful.
Soon, "Saratoga Chips" were a Moon's Lake House staple and were even packaged in boxes for diners to take home and enjoy later. Their popularity spread throughout the region as other restaurants began to offer them, and they were known as Saratoga Chips no matter where they were sold.
Another version of the story, however, credits an accident by Katie Wicks with getting the crispy chips onto Moon Lake's menu. In this version, Wicks was peeling potatoes and let a bit of peel fall into hot oil. It was fished out and Crum took a crunchy bite and recognized they had a good thing on their hands.
Multiple sources say the obituary of each sibling gave that sibling credit for inventing the potato chip.
Either way, within a few decades of 1853, potato chips became an industry and by their 150th birthday in 2003, U.S. retail sales topped $6 billion per year.
Sources: Saratoga Springs Public Library; New York Heritage; Snopes; SNAC International; Saratoga.com; originalsaratogachips.com.