A Short Peanut History
peanut plant probably originated in Brazil or Peru, although no fossil records
exist to prove this. But for as long as people have been making pottery in South
America (3,500 years or so) they have been making jars shaped like peanuts and
decorated with peanuts. Graves of ancient Incas found along the dry western
coast of South America often contain jars filled with peanuts and left with
the dead to provide food in the afterlife.
Peanuts were grown as far north as Mexico by the time the Spanish began their
exploration of the New World. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, where
they are still grown. From Spain, traders and explorers took peanuts to Africa
and Asia. In Africa the plant became common in the western tropical region.
The peanut was regarded by many Africans as one of several plants possessing
When Africans were brought to North America as slaves,
peanuts came with them. Slaves planted peanuts throughout the southern United
States (the word goober comes from the Congo name for peanuts - nguba). In the
1700's, peanuts, then called groundnuts or ground peas, were studied by botanists
and regarded as an excellent food for pigs. Records show that peanuts were grown
commercially in South Carolina around 1800 and used for oil, food and a substitute
for cocoa. However, until 1900 peanuts were not extensively grown, partially
because they were regarded as food for the poor, and because growing and harvesting
were slow and difficult until labor-saving equipment was invented around the
turn of the century.
The first notable increase in U.S. peanut consumption came
in 1860 with the outbreak of the Civil War. Northern soldiers, as well as Southern,
used the peanut as a food. During the last half of the 19th century, peanuts
were eaten as a snack, sold freshly roasted by street vendors and at baseball
games and circuses. While peanut production rose during this time, peanuts were
harvested by hand which left stems and trash in the peanuts. Thus, poor quality
and lack of uniformity kept down the demand for peanuts.
Around 1900, equipment was invented for planting, cultivating, harvesting and
picking peanuts from the plants, and for shelling and cleaning the kernels.
With these mechanical aids, peanuts rapidly came into demand for oil, roasted
and salted nuts, peanut butter and candy. George Washington Carver began his
research into peanuts in 1903 at Tuskeegee Institute. Research that would lead
him to discover improvements in horticulture and the development of more than
300 uses for peanuts (including shoe polish and shaving cream).
The talented botanist recognized the value of the peanut as
a cash crop and proposed that peanuts be planted as a rotation crop in the Southeast
cotton-growing areas where the boll weevil insect threatened the regions' agricultural
base. Farmers listened and the face of southern farming was changed forever.
For his work in promoting its cultivation and consumption, Carver is considered
the father of the peanut industry.
Peanut production rose rapidly during and after World Wars I and II as a result
of the peanut's popularity with Allied forces, and as a result of the post-war
Today, peanuts contribute over four billion dollars to the U.S. economy each