When potato chips were health food

Step back in time to when a modest complex was considered a luxury resort, and potato chips were health food. In 1951 the Nicolay Dancy Company produced the New Era Potato Chips, touted as  a newer and healthier version of the potato chip. Nicolay Dancy, headquartered in good old Detroit, Michigan, was not only a purveyor of healthy snack chips, but also the proud owner  of a luxury resort in Harbor Springs, Michigan, built in 1962 as a retreat center for New Era employees.  Considered opulent  for its time, the resort boasted two large field-stone fireplaces in the  gathering rooms, a complex of plush hotel rooms, which surrounded  a  courtyard recreation area, complete with  a heated pool and playground. All of this rested on a scenic bluff  overlooking Lake Michigan. Apparently no expense was spared. Rooms included the latest in modern decor, including a 1962 attempt at reinventing the toilet, genuine ceramic tile in classic 60’s yellow, and real knotty pine paneling. When the company was bought out by Frito Lay in 1982, the retreat center eventually became a locally run hotel, which remains mostly unencumbered by modernization, or as the owners prefer to call it, carefully preserved with the lodge aura intended by the builders.

At the time that Nicolay Dancy produced the New Era Potato Chip, there was fierce demand and competition among chip makers to produce this tasty,salty delight. New Era’s tactic was to promote the chip as a healthy food on the alkaline side, although I have no idea why alkalinity was thought to equal healthful. New Era backed up this claim with “science says so.” Otherwise-sensible consumers believed it to be true.  Straight from the can, because potato chips didn’t always come in crinkly bags, here’s the scientific claim:

Chemical analysis have proven New Era Potato Chips to be a highly concentrated, energy-producing food, 95% digestible, and of greater alkalinity than even fresh, raw potatoes. Feast without fear!

At the time, the FDA did not wield as much oversight of the food industry as it does today, so apparently New Era could get away with their healthy claims. So what was the secret to New Era’s healthfulness as an energy-producing food? The secret is revealed, right on the front of the can: “…processed in hydrogenated vegetable shortening.” Hydrogenated? Didn’t we just ban that a couple of years ago, because hydrogenated oil contains trans fats?

But never mind that. Back then people didn’t care so much about  cholesterol.  Folks were free to enjoy their healthy potato chips in peace. Consumers trusted the food industry, and New Era chips, with its depiction of slim, active women on the can, were tasty and popular, and thought to be good for you too. And why not? Wouldn’t it be great if today we too could just chill and eat our potato chips, as if they too were scientifically proven to be healthy?

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© Huffygirl 2012



32 thoughts on “When potato chips were health food

  1. Are those actual vintage screen doors on the cells, er, luxury suites?? But back to the potato chips – I wonder if hydrogenated shortening was supposed to be healthy because, hey, at least it wasn’t lard?

    Still, “Wouldn’t it be great if today we too could just chill and eat our potato chips”. Being grown up is such a pain sometimes, ya know? 😉

    • You are right Sharon. And those are the vintage, original screen doors on the cells. They were considered an improvement over previous screen doors, as they had the louvers one can adjust, by hand of course, to let the fresh air in but keep the sunlight our, or in, depending on the weather.

      I agree – I think the big deal about the shortening was that it was an improvement over lard, what was formerly used for frying food. I think that is also where the touting of “digestibility” comes in too, as foods fried in lard tended to sit kind of heavy in the stomach, and cause more heartburn.

  2. I could live on salt and vinegar chips, so I just don’t buy them anymore. I remember when I was growing up that the Charles Chip man would actually deliver a giant can of Charles Chips right to our door every week. Bizarre, now that I think of it! Very interesting story, HG.

    • Thanks Susan. my husband said his family got potato chips delivered too. As if they were an important dietary staple like bread or milk. Oddly enough there was less obesity then, even though they were eating potato chips delivered weekly, and drinking whole milk.

      • I think it was because people had more physically active jobs, kids played outside more and didn’t sit around looking at their phones, watching TV and playing video games like they do today. We only had 2 TV channels, and we played outside every day unless it was raining.

  3. Cool! I don’t remember eating chips as a kid. For some reason, I think I didn’t like them. Unfortunately, I learned to like them as an adult. But I have plenty of foods I like more, so they’re not a great temptation.
    I wonder if we’ll ever get back to a time when kids play outside more.

    • I don’t think we had chips very often, but I do remember having those New Era Chips at least once. Wish I still had that can.

      As far as kids playing outside, I think the smartphone industry is turning them all into statues.

  4. I remember a New Era can in our Kansas pantry when I was little [late 1950’s-early 1960’s]. If I recall it correctly, a relative sent it to us. My father’s mother was born a Nicolay–maybe some cousin sent us potato chips?

    We had potato chips occasionally. Almost always with tuna salad sandwiches. In fact, a tuna sandwich doesn’t taste “right” to me after 50 years without some potato chips on the side.

    Leftover potato chip crumbs were sprinkled on casseroles, then baked in the oven.

    I walked to school, “town”, the movies, the park, and played outside whenever I could, rain or shine, cold winds or stifling heat. Now, I usually drive, but park far away from building entrances.

    • I love your potato chip memories Mary Jo. It’s interesting how the tastes we form as children persist. We always had tuna sandwiches on Fridays, the only day our school served chocolate milk, so I associate tuna with chocolate milk. Do you have any connection to the Nicolay family now? I’d be interested in hearing more about the New Era chips. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your memories.

  5. Huffygirl,

    Greetings, I just happened to stumble on your New Era story. So you Mishy-ganders still remember those great chips, me too. My grandfather was R.V. (Buss) Dancey the other half of Nicolay-Dancey co founders of the New-Era Potato Chip Co. in 1926.
    Since I’m now on the other side of sixty I can say I too remember the great smell of the chip plant on Grandy. Snitch’n hot ones off the line was an extreme treat as well.

    The cooking oil was actually a Crisco based product made by the Proctor and Gamble Co. It was brought into the chip plant in a rail car. Those of us old enough remember Crisco was solid back then…not a liquid. So New-Era had a huge heated “soak” room that was at a high temp to melt the Crisco in the rail car so it could be pumped to the fry vats. You were right in your assumption regarding the cooking oil, for it was much healthier then than the lard most other chip makers were frying their chips in.

    It’s to bad Pepsico does not tell the entire story of how New-Era, Frito, Lays, and Pepsi all came together. Remember….I’m sixty, my mother now eighty-seven lived through the (merger) not buy-out as has been reported. I have a copy of “New-Era News” that documents the entire merger between New-Era and the Frito Company in 1958.

    New Era as you know was a Detroit based company founded by two auto workers that were laid off and needed to find a job. Ernest L. Nicolay and Russel V. Dancey worked side by side at the Dodge Brothers or Chevrolet Gear & Axle plant. I’ll have to ask mom which one they met, for gramps worked for both. How the chip got started is another interesting story for they originally made and sold shoe-string potato sticks to sell to folks who rode the same trolley going to work. It originally was a “side” business for extra money for Nic and Buss.

    Around 1958 both New-Era and the Frito companies were looking to expand to new parts of the country. New-Era had plants in Detroit, Wooster, Ohio (Go Buckeyes) Chicago, and Philadelphia. So they had distribution pretty well set in the Midwest to east coast. Frito had the southwest tied up but was looking to expand too. So gramps and Mr. Doolin (Frito) put together a (merger) and became The Frito-Nicolay-Dancey Co. It was 1958 or 59, but several years before merging with Herman Lay.

    Ernest (Nic) Nicolay died in 1959 as I recall and shortly there after the Frito-New-Era Co. merged with Herman Lay of Texas. Herman insisted the Lay name replace the New-Era chip brand and so the “Frito-Lay” company was formed of which Dancey (gramps) remained on the board of directors for many years.

    The fact is…..Deeetroit had a big part in the success and founding of Frito-Lay..Pepsico Companies. The new company decided they would like to own a beverage company to go with the salty snacks they were now selling nation wide. Gramps, being a Detroit guy tried to talk the Vernors and Squirt companies to jump in but to no avail. He then pursued Pepsi and in about 1960 or 61 bingo. And as Paul Harvey would say…Now you know the rest of the story.

    As for the supposed resort reported in your story….If there was one, I never saw it. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of any so called resort. We did have a cottage…and still do in Caseville, Michigan, but it’s no resort trust me. Nicolays might have…but not the Dancey side.

    So thanks Detroit, for sharing…I have fond memories of the “Motor City” and visiting my wonderful grandparents. J.L. Hudson’s chocolate chip cookies (they were the best) Tiger Stadium (3rd base upper deck, and serve the curve hot-dogs,) Joe Muir’s, Soupy Sales, Milky the clown…good memories.
    Tim Godard
    Medina, Ohio

    • Hi Tim,
      I was hoping someone familiar with the New Era Potato Chip company would find this post and fill us in on some of the history. Thanks for sharing the story and your memories. I may turn this into a follow-up post at some time if it’s okay with you. Of course I might need to make another trip to the Birchwood Inn to do so!

      Meanwhile, check out this link for the Birchwood Inn http://www.birchwoodinn.com/home.html
      if you get to Michigan you may want to make a trip up to Harbor Springs to see it, and maybe find out more about the property’s association with your Grandfather’s company. And if you do, be sure to stop by here again and fill us in. For $89 a night you can’t beat the price, and the Harbor Springs area is a great place to visit at any price.

      • I’ve just found your blog! I’ve been trying since I became computer-literate some nine years ago to track down evidence of a potato chip with the slim woman silhouette on the container! I knew I remembered something like this from my childhood in the Detroit area. Couldn’t for the life of me recall the name of the product, had the vague impression Lays got involved or superceded it at some point. You know how I finally located the brand? I did a search on EBay for “vintage potato chip tins!” That brought up dozens, and a quick scroll rolled up New Era! Now: Can anyone confirm whether this potato chip company had radio/TV advertizing with a jingle assuring us “They’re delicious, and so nutritious?” Because I remember that too, as clear as can be. I’m betting that was New Era!

      • Glad to hear your efforts at becoming internet savvy have paid off. I do not remember the jingle, but it does sound about right, based on the company’s premise that their potato chips were health food.

      • Tim, we used to catch perch off your dock on Sand Point. My cousins now own the log cabin at 8152 Crescent Beach Rd. Bob Zigmanth (in Livonia now but moving back so SoCal soon). my email address is bzig@aol.com

      • Hi Bob, I hope Tim sees this. Great how a blog about potato chips can help you reconnect with an old friend. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. OK YOU people all have the one pound Tin. I have a one pound BOX , probably from the war years . the 2nd world war. I can not find any info about this container. Help!! Rear of box is pre-priced .62 cents. Nicolay Dancey- Detroit

    • Frank, I’ve found very little about the Nicolay Dancey Company, other than what I’ve already posted. Fortunately I am old enough to remember eating New Era Potato Chips, otherwise the whole experience of visiting their former retreat center would have been wasted on me. Here is a link to another article, but really doesn’t give much else info about the company. http://www.the-daily-record.com/business/2014/01/12/frito-lay-wooster-s-top-business I just got back from another visit to the Birchwood Inn, aka former retreat center for the New Era Potato Chip company, and again found it unchanged from it’s 1962 self. Thanks for stopping by.

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