How did hot dogs develop into a popular food?
Summer, in many people's minds, is a time of barbecues and picnics. One common food in this is the hot dog, often grilled and served in a bun. The history of the hot dog went to ancient periods when sausages developed as a popular food. Modern hot dogs result from the efficient use of meat remains after the processing of meat products. The hot dog's history is often seen or attributed to German origins, but there is a dispute about this even here.
The hot dog's traditional origin lies with the so-called Frankfurt sausage, or frankfurter, which was a sausage developed in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. This was supposedly around 1487 when this type of sausage of packaged or processed meat was developed. Frankfurt, to this day, still celebrates this time as the origin of their famous sausages. However, Vienna disputes Frankfurt's claims. The term "wiener" is often used to refer to sausages or hot dogs, which suggests an origin from that city at an even earlier period. This term for sausages or hot dogs derives from the German name for the city (Wien).
While these traditions often point to a Medieval origin to sausages, we know in reality that sausages likely go back much further in time. In Homer's Odyssey, a type of sausage or processed meat is mentioned. In fact, as early as ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia, about 4000 years ago, animal intestines were mentioned in texts as being used to be then stuffed with meat as a type of cuisine. It is very likely sausages developed as separate innovations in varying cultures, given the sausage's utility and the need to efficiently use animal parts.
One problem for past societies that would have likely led them to develop the sausage is having to preserve meat. Sausages would be ideal because they could be encased and then smoked or dried for preservation. It allows meat to be easily stored while with some protective outer covering. Most likely, animal intestines would have been used initially, as they still are for natural or traditional style sausages. Sausages are also easy to hang, as they still are, and store for later consumption, where the encasing also helps to preserve the meat further and keep its consistency. Early depictions of sausage manufacturing can be found from ancient Rome (Figure 1).
Sausages became common in Europe and much of the Old World, but cultures developed them to fit their local tastes and meat varieties, which is why there are many meat varieties for sausages. Therefore, it is likely there is the truth that Vienna and Frankfurt both had existing sausage traditions that likely then influenced what would become the hot dog. Like ancient periods, the Medieval period saw continued use of sausages due to the ease with which the food preserves and its convenient packaging. Sausages were often among the few types of meats that non-elites could consume, as it was among the cheaper meats to obtain because it was generally preserved.
While animal intestines for food packaging would make us think there is a high probability of sickness or infection, which was likely the case in the past, it also likely helped make Europeans. Others develop immunity from some parasites that would be found in animal intestines. Thus, one could argue that sausages potentially helped improve health or at least immunity from some sicknesses.
The American Hot Dog
The American hot dog, which is now the hot dog that influenced other countries in adopting this type of food, likely developed from the dachshund sausages served by some German immigrants in the United States. In the 1860s, German immigrants were known to sell dachshund sausages with milk rolls and sauerkraut. In 1871, a German baker, Charles Feltman, opened the first known stand in Coney Island that specifically sold or focused on the dachshund sausages with milk rolls.
In the 1893 exhibition in Chicago, a city with many German immigrants, visitors to the city became acquainted with this sausage type. It proved popular as vendors could sell them from their carts, put them in a bun, which was in the German tradition, and serve to customers at a low cost as they were easy to make and preserved well (Figure 2).
In 1893, the first baseball team began to sell the predecessor to the modern hot dog (dachshund sausages) at baseball games. The Saint Louis Browns were the first team to sell these sausages at their games in buns. The owner, Chris Von de Ahe, was a German-American who saw an opportunity to sell these products at games, where they were easy to eat while sitting and watching the game as they required no knife or fork to eat shape of the sausages being long and thin. While the sausage buns were not a standard size, in 1904, Anton Feuchtwanger, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, helped develop a bun that fit the sausage's shape.
However, some dispute this and state that Feltman in 1871 had already developed a specialized bun that fit the long, thing shaped sausages. Buns would have developed to fit the increasing culture of eating hot dogs or sausages on the go rather than as a sit-down meal. Therefore, buns became developed so that hot dogs could be held without burning your hand and making it easy to eat.
Regardless, this innovation of hot dog buns made it even easier to hold and consume the sausage as people sat and watched the exhibition or other events. As for the origins of the term 'hot dog,' this is not fully clear. The most likely story is that in the 1890s, at Yale, German immigrants selling dachshund sausages became associated with dachshund dogs, thin and long.
The dogs' association with the sausage vendors could have been a play on words that associated the two, as pronouncing dachshund was not easy for many Americans, and the term 'hot dog' was used about the shape and vendors became easier. Other origin myths could have been that 'hot dogs' were a derisive reference to the accusation that dogs were sometimes used as the hot dogs' meat.
In the early 1900s, food manufacturers began to produce hot dogs in larger quantities. At this time, food emulsifiers were often added to preserve hot dogs further as they were packaged and shipped to increasingly more distant places. In fact, in the early 1900s, food manufacturers created a somewhat negative image of hot dogs that still affects their reputation. During this time, some manufacturers began to add sawdust or applied other short cuts, including mixing meats with different animals and sometimes even rotting meat.
Upton Sinclair’s famous publication, The Jungle, led to a major backlash against food manufacturers, with hot dog manufacturing being one of the culprits. This eventually led to the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Hot dogs, in effect, helped contribute to food safety guidelines in the United States. In the early 20th century, different cities began to create variations of their hot dogs. New York and Chicago became two major cities that were associated with styles of hot dogs. One type of Chicago hot dog is kosher-style meat with white onions, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, and sometimes hot peppers for a spicy hot dog. There are many variations in New York, but the common elements have included mustard, sauerkraut, and optional sweet onions and tomato-based sauce.
Modern ketchup, deriving in the early 20th century, has also developed as a popular condiment in the early 20th century for hot dogs. However, many would argue ketchup ruins the taste of a hot dog.
By the 1920s, there became more of a distinction between traditional sausages and hot dogs, which were increasingly defined by the food manufacturers. Hot dogs are essentially a type of sausage that is ground finer and emulsified, often encased with an artificial covering that is also usually removed in the food making process to keep the meat together. As larger food consumer companies began to manufacture hot dogs, they also experimented with different products to hold the meat together, and they started creating artificial cellulose casings. The meat itself in most hot dogs today is mostly a paste of different types of meats, including chicken, pork, or beef.
Traditional German sausages were mostly made of pork, as that was the common and relatively inexpensive meat. After intense heating, the encasing is peeled away, keeping the meat tightly packed for modern hot dogs. Traditional sausages, however, are still sold in many stores and often still made by butchers in more traditional shops.
Modern hot dogs are seen as a very 'American' food, which they are given how the traditional sausage evolved in the late 19th century and 20th century. However, the origins of the food are very ancient, and its simplicity and ease of preservation had made the sausage ancestors of the hot dog popular with many cultures. This likely explains why American style hot dogs have also become popular in many countries, as sausages were often part of the traditional cuisine of many different countries.
- For more on terms used to refer to sausages, see: Kraig, B. (2009). Hot dog: a global history. London: Reaktion Books.
- For more on the origins of sausages, see Allen, G. (2015). Sausage: a global history.London: Reaktion Books.
- For more on what is in sausage and its history, see Dalby, A. (2003). Food in the ancient world, from A to Z. London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 294.
- For more on the development of the dachshund sausage and its influence on hot dogs, see: Kraig, B., & Carroll, P. (2014). Man bites dog: hot dog culture in America. Taylor Trade Publishing, pg. 44.
- For more on how the sausage became the hot dog, see: Bly, R. W. (2007). All-American frank: a history of the hot dog. Baltimore, MD: PublishAmerica.
- For more on the sometimes controversial development of the meatpacking industry and its relation to the hot dog, see: Horowitz, R. (2006). Putting meat on the American table: taste, technology, transformation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- For more on what goes in a hot dog today, see Hui, Y. H. (Ed.). (, 2012). Handbook of meat and meat processing (2nd ed)Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, pg. 453.