Inventing America’s Favorite Cookie
Many of us have been baking a bit more than usual while staying at home. So, let’s take look at how America’s favorite cookie, the chocolate chip, was born.
Before we get to chocolate chips, let’s talk chocolate. It’s made from the beans of the cacao tree and was introduced by the Aztec and Mayan peoples to Europeans in the late 1500s. Then a dense, frothy beverage thickened with cornmeal and flavored with chilies, vanilla, and spices, it was used in ancient ceremonies.
Map of the Americas, 1550. THF284540
Colonial Americans imported cacao from the West Indies. They consumed it as a hot beverage, made from ground cacao beans, sugar, vanilla and water, and served it in special chocolate pots.
Chocolate Pot, 1760-1790 THF145291
In the 1800s, chocolate made its way into an increasing number of foods, things like custards, puddings, and cookies, and onto chocolate-covered candy. It was not just for drinking anymore!
Trade Card, Granite Ironware, 1880-1890 THF299872
Today, most Americans say chocolate is their favorite flavor. Are you a milk or dark chocolate fan? My vote? Dark chocolate.
Cookies were special treats into the early 1800s; sweeteners were costly and cookies took more time and labor to make. Imagine easing them in and out of a brick fireplace over with a long-handled peel.
Detail of late 18th century kitchen in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. See the kitchen for yourself with this virtual visit.
As kitchen technology improved in the early 1900s, especially the ability to regulate oven temperature, America’s cookie repertoire grew.
Detail of 1930s kitchen in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. See the kitchen yourself with this virtual visit.
Until the 1930s, baking chocolate was melted in a double boiler before being added to cookie dough. Check out this 1920 recipe for Chocolate Mousse from our historic recipe bank.
Then came Ruth Graves Wakefield and the chocolate chip cookie. Ruth, a graduate of the Framingham State Normal School of Household Arts, had taught high school home economics and had worked as a dietitian.
Image: "Overlooked No More: Ruth Wakefield, Who Invented the Chocolate Chip Cookie" from The New York Times
In 1930, 27-year-old Ruth and her husband Kenneth opened a restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts called the Toll House Inn. The building had never been a toll house, but was located on an early road between Boston and New Bedford. The restaurant would grow from seven tables to 60.
Toll House Inn business card, 1930s. THF183299
A quick aside: our 1820s Rocks Village Toll House in Greenfield Village. Early travelers paid tolls to use roads or cross bridges. This one collected fares for crossing the Merrimack River.
Rocks Village, Massachusetts toll house in Greenfield Village. THF2033
With Ruth Wakefield’s background in household arts, she was well-prepared to put together a menu for her restaurant. It was a great location. The Toll House Inn served not only the locals, but people passing through on their way between Boston and Cape Cod.
Toll House Inn business card, 1930s. THF18330
Over time, Ruth’s reputation grew, and the restaurant became well-known for her skillful cooking, wonderful desserts, and excellent service. On the back of this circa 1945 Toll House Inn postcard, a customer wrote: “…down here two weeks ago & had a grand dinner.”
Toll House Inn postcard, about 1945. THF183298
Ruth Wakefield, curious and willing to experiment, liked to create new dishes and desserts to delight her customers. The inn had been serving a butterscotch cookie--which everyone loved--but Ruth wanted to “give them something different.”
About 1938, Ruth had an inspiration. She chopped up a Nestle’s semisweet chocolate bar with an ice pick and stirred the bits into her sweet butter cookie batter. The chocolate bits melted--and didn’t spread, remaining in chunks throughout the dough.
Recipe Booklet, "Favorite Chocolate Recipes made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate," 1940. THF125196
Legend has it that the cookies were an accident--that Ruth had expected to get all-chocolate cookies when the chocolate melted. One of those “creation myths?” A great marketing tale? Ruth was a meticulous cook and food science savvy. She said it was a deliberate experiment.
The marriage of sweet, buttery cookie dough and semisweet chocolate was a hit--the cookies quickly became popular with guests. Ruth shared the recipe when asked. Local newspapers published it. And she included it in the 1938 edition of her “Tried and True Recipes” cookbook.
The Toll House, Whitman, Massachusetts, circa 1945. THF183297
Nestle’s saw sales of its semisweet chocolate bar jump dramatically in New England--especially after the cookie was featured on a local radio show. When Nestle discovered why, they signed a contract with Ruth Wakefield, allowing Nestle to print the recipe on every package.
Nestle’s truck, 1934. Z0001194
Nestle began scoring its semisweet chocolate bar, packaging it with a small chopper for easy cutting into morsels. The result was chocolate “chips”--hence the name.
Recipe Booklet, "Favorite Chocolate Recipes made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate," 1940. THF125194
Nestle included the Toll House Cookie “backstory” and the recipe in booklets promoting their semisweet chocolate.
Chocolate chip morsels were a great idea, so other companies followed suit.
Recipe Leaflet, "9 Famous Recipes for Hershey's Semi-Sweet Chocolate Dainties," 1956. THF295928
Other delectable treats, like these “Chocolate Refresher” bars shown in this 1960 ad, can be made with chocolate morsels. The possibilities are endless.
Nestle's Semi-Sweet Morsels Advertisement, "Goody for You," 1960. THF43907
More from The Henry Ford: Enjoy a quick “side trip” to this blog about more American chocolate classics.
Holiday baking is a cherished tradition for many. Chocolate chip cookies are frequently a key player in the seasonal repertoire. Hallmark captured holiday baking memories in this ornament.
Hallmark "Christmas Cookies" Christmas Ornament, 2004. THF177747
Cookie dough + chocolate chips = America’s favorite cookie! It may have been simple, but no one else had ever tried it before! Hats off to Ruth Wakefield!
After all this talk of all things chocolate, are you ready for a cookie? This well-known cookie lover probably is!
Cookie Monster Toy Clock, 1982-1986. THF318447
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Massachusetts, 1930s, 20th century, women's history, restaurants, recipes, food, entrepreneurship, by Jeanine Head Miller, #THFCuratorChat