Who Invented the Chocolate Chip Cookie?

Photo: © Emily Farris

While cookies existed in America long before the iconic chocolate chip cookie (a recipe for sugar cookies dates back to 1796), it sure doesn't seem like it. The average American eats nearly 19,000 chocolate chip cookies during their lifetime, according to one report. That's approximately one cookie every day from ages 18 to 70.

Believe it or not, the chocolate chip cookie is a rather recent addition to our staple of sweet tooth satisfiers. In 1938, Whitman, Massachusetts restaurant owner Ruth Wakefield was tooling around in her kitchen when she stumbled upon the tremendous deliciousness of adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. Here's the origin story of everyone's favorite cookie.

In August 1930, just as the Great Depression began to grip America, Ruth and Ken Wakefield opened a restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts. While it may not have seemed like the most prudent decision for the time, the married couple hoped to capitalize on the establishment's placement on a well-traveled former toll road. Success at the "Toll House" was, at first, elusive. In fact, business was so scarce those first few months that they couldn't even afford extra dishes, often needing to wash and reuse the salad plates for dessert. But the Wakefields hung in there and, by 1938, the "Toll House" had become wildly popular thanks to Mrs. Wakefield's menu choices and their prime location between Boston and Cape Cod. As Carolyn Wyman writes in her book The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, the Toll House was able to capitalize on America's new car culture and compares their ascent to that of Harland Sander's chicken empire.

It was Mrs. Wakefield's desserts though, that truly made the Toll House stand out. Famed across the region, New England celebrities came far and wide for a forkful of one of her confectionary delights. It was said that the US Ambassador to England and Bostonian Joe Kennedy Sr. stopped there twice a week for a slice of her Boston Cream Pie and would grab Toll House brownies for his kids (and yes, one of those kids did end up becoming President of the United States). The "Most Trusted Name in Food" Duncan Hines loved her lemon meringue pie and called the Indian pudding (a corn version of British hasty pudding), "the kind of dessert that makes a fellow wish for hollow legs."

As it seems to be a trend with these types of origin stories, there are several variations about that fateful day when Mrs. Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie. The most widely told of these tales was that it was all an accident, that she was making a cookie that required nuts but ran out. So, she substituted chocolate chips instead and a legend was born. Or perhaps it was baker's chocolate that she was out of and instead used chocolate given to her by Andrew Nestlé. A more fantastical version of this story was that the vibrations from a mixer caused chocolate from above to fall unexpectedly into the mixing cookie dough.

The real story, as Wyman explains in her book, is a lot less "enchanting," but a great example of the can-do American spirit. Always inventive and trying new things, Wakefield was more likely experimenting with her beloved "drop cookie" when she decided to use some Nestlé chocolate she had lying around. While it was no accident that she used the chocolate, Wakefield also likely had no clue her invention would take off like it did. As Wyman explained in a 2013 interview with Boston Magazine, "Nowadays, people love the 'dumb luck' story of the person who wins the lottery, or invents something because they were doing something else. But what she did was still revolutionary."

The new cookie grew in fame, especially after Wakefield published the recipe in her "Tried and True" cookbook. With Nestlé chocolate as the main ingredient, sales of the candy bar skyrocketed and the already 72-year-old company took notice (Nestlé was founded in 1866). They sent a company representative to Whitman to strike a deal with Mrs. Wakefield. On March 20th, 1939, Ruth Wakefield sold the recipe to Nestlé for, according to her daughter, an undisclosed amount of money (though, the New Yorker reported it was only for a dollar).

Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield continued to operate the Toll House until 1967, when they eventually sold it. Ruth Wakefield died in 1974, famed for her cookies but also for her numerous other delicious desserts. The Toll House burned down in a dramatic New Year's Eve fire in 1984. Today, sadly (unless you really love square burgers), the former location of the Toll House is a Wendy's, where only a plaque marks the culinary history that happened here - where America's favorite cookie was invented.

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