The 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 a soul.
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 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 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 baby boom.
Today, peanuts contribute over four billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year.