James Ford Bell Library


by John A. Mazis

Engraving of a potato plant from Caspar Plautius, Nova typis transacta navigatio, Munich, 1621, opposite page 52.Engraving of a potato plant from Caspar Plautius, Nova typis transacta navigatio, Munich, 1621, opposite page 52.

When historians examine the economic significance of plants found in the New World, potatoes are viewed as being of lesser importance. This is only natural since fortunes were not created through the cultivation of that particular plant. While tobacco, sugar, and indigo (to name only a few plants important in early modern trade) became the basis for the creation of plantations in the Americas, the potato did not achieve cash-crop status. However, the potato invaded the Old World and became a staple in the diet of many people, achieving importance second only to bread; today one cannot imagine life without it. The potato’s success as food for the masses was not achieved overnight. For many years the potato was considered to be unsuitable for human consumption. In the book The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Redcliffe Salaman follows the history of the potato from its ancient roots to its universal acceptance in the 20th century.

The Spanish came in contact with potatoes in the middle of the 16th century when they invaded Peru. The people of the Peruvian highlands had been cultivating and eating potatoes for centuries. The Spanish recognized at once the importance of the new crop as an easy to cultivate, abundant source of cheap food. The conquistadores utilized potatoes as food for their slaves. Thus from the start potatoes were labeled as food for the lower classes. That might explain, at least in part, why potatoes were not accepted in Europe at once. It was only in 1620, almost a hundred years after its introduction to Europeans, that Spain started using potatoes as food, and then only in hospitals for the poor.

Woodcut of potatoes in Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia, Antwerp, Officina Plantiniana, 1601, p. Lxxix.Woodcut of potatoes in Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia, Antwerp, Officina Plantiniana, 1601, p. Lxxix.

Besides Spain, other colonial powers were introduced to the potato. However, it seems that a certain ill repute accompanied the new crop. For that reason Europeans were reluctant to use the potato in their diet. The English introduced potatoes as food for the Irish, a subject race. The Germans, who were introduced to the potato by the Dutch, used it as food for animals and prisoners. The French were unwilling to try the potato as food until the late 18th century. A few unfortunate coincidences helped give the potato a bad name. The physical appearance of the potato itself, full of eyes, resembled the appearance of those humans who were afflicted with leprosy. Thus it was assumed that the potato was a carrier of that disease. As late as 1768 the Swiss believed that potatoes caused another disfiguring illness, scrofula. The leaves of the potato plant are poisonous; this is nature’s way of protecting the potato from being eaten by animals. People assumed that the potato itself must have also been poisonous. In some areas of Europe, notably Russia, people believed that potatoes, which were not mentioned in the Bible, were unsuitable for consumption by Christians.

During the European Enlightenment potatoes became acceptable to the larger public. Within a few short years the potato had achieved prominence in the daily diet of people; a position which it holds to this day.

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at ragn0001@umn.edu.

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