“Peel large potatoes – cut them in shavings, round and round as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping”
Dr William Kitchiner ‘The Cook’s Oracle’ 1817
In 1919, in the midst of the general depression that followed the Great War, a new ‘novelty food item’ appeared on sale in pubs and hotels. It came in a blue tin, carried the brand name Smith’s with a distinctive upper-case ‘IT’ and a label saying ‘Potato Crisps’. They weren’t the first potato crisps in the U.K but they were the most popular.
The man behind the new crisp venture was one Frank Smith, a greengrocer born in 1875. He began his career managing a small crisp department at a Smithfield wholesale grocer. Realising how popular crisps were, especially with publicans who appreciated their ability to promote a thirst, in 1919 Frank raised £10,000 with two friends, Jim and George and started his own crisp business. Their first factory was a disused garage in Cricklewood with a staff of twelve. So successful was the business that by 1921 Smith’s Potato Crisps had opened additional factories in Portsmouth, Birmingham, Paisley and Stockport. In 1927 Smiths opened another factory in Brentford managed by the same man who had fried Frank’s first crisps back in 1919. By then the company was producing nearly 2 million packets of crisps a year, about 95% of all the crisps sold in Britain. In 1929 Smith’s Potato Crisps went public.
Frank Smith knew that only three or four varieties of potatoes could be used in the crisp business. Some simply wouldn’t chip at all. The quality of the product depended on the potatoes, and they knew something about them for they used 36,000 tons a year. To ensure supply, the company acquired 8,000 acres of farmland in Lincolnshire, which provided around 10 percent of the company’s potato requirements. It was the largest farm under single management in Europe. In 1935, with 83 farmers in England growing for them, Smiths contracted for another 1,000 acres of land in Cornwall, to help reduce potato imports.
The new Brentford factory was located on the Great West arterial road for ease of distribution and their vans soon became a regular sight around U.K streets. The crisps, now cut by machine rather than by hand, were cooked by gas making Smiths the second largest consumer on the ‘Gas Light and Coke Company’ books. The packing however was still done by hand because no machine had been yet developed that could pack as carefully as the women that did the job. One of the features of Smith’s Crisps was the little screw of blue greaseproof paper in each pack containing salt. These had been prepared by hand until the early 30’s when the company bought 15 machines to do the job, each costing £750. It was the Brentford factory’s claim in 1935 that if all the packets of crisps they produced in a year were laid end to end they would reach 15,909 miles. By then the value of the company on the Stock Exchange was worth over £1,750,000.
One of the former pleasures or pains of eating crisps was locating the salt ‘twist’ inside the pack. One popular technique was to hold the pack up to the light and shake it until the twist revealed itself. Then you would open the pack and gingerly root about inside until you had found it. Then you would unwrap the twist and empty the salt into the pack. The final step was to close the pack and give it a good shake to distribute the salt.
During the Second World War the majority of production went to the military. By 1949 Smith’s had eleven factories and twelve depots in Britain, and two factories in Australia. Over 2,000 staff were employed. By 1956 the company was producing over 10 million packets of crisps every week and by 1960 net profit after tax exceeded £1 million.
Potato crisps were fast becoming a predominant part of the snack and convenience food market. In 2005 it was estimated that the global potato crisp market generated total revenues of US$16.49 billion. This accounted for 35.5% of the total savoury snacks market in that year ($46.1 billion). It was a little too late however for the Smith brand name. In 1970 their Brentford factory closed and in 1982 the company, along with their potato crisp rivals Walkers, was acquired by Nabisco. Seven years later, in 1989, Smiths and Walkers were both taken over by Pepsico for the tidy sum of $1.35 billion. Pepsico then quietly withdrew the Smiths brand in favour of Walkers. Now just a few years short of their 100th anniversary Smith’s Crisps is no longer the company it once was. It is now known as Smith’s Snackfood Co and is owned by the American company Pepsico with its headquarters are in New South Wales, Australia. The company’s limited range of products include Frazzles, Parker’s Pretzels and Nobby’s Nuts. As for the iconic blue greaseproof twist of salt – nobody knows where that finished up. Maybe it got lost on the long journey from Frank, Jim and George and their garage in Cricklewood.
1978 Advert for Smith’s Crisps ‘Salt ’n’ Shake
1980 Smith’s Crisps TV ad
— from Martyn Day