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 and from there, traders and explorers took peanuts to Africa and Asia. In Africa the plant became common in the western tropical region.
Peanuts came to North America as a consequence of the slave trade and were planted throughout the southern United States (the word goober comes from the Congo name for peanuts - nguba). In the 1700s, 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 labour-saving equipment was invented around the turn of the century. The peanut remained basically a regional food associated with the southern US
The first notable increase in US 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 in Alabama. 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 region's agricultural base. Farmers listened and the face of southern farming was changed forever. For his work in promoting its cultivation and consumption, Dr 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 baby boom.
Today, peanuts are found in a wide variety of products and are an integral part of many cuisines all over the world. Among the more common uses are in snacks, confectionery and bakery, as well as peanut butter, sauces and toppings.
The US government instituted agricultural support programmes in the early 1900's to promote the production of important food crops, including peanuts. Today, the production of peanuts is overseen by the US Department of Agriculture under the auspices of farm legislation adopted by the US Congress in 2002.