The term “hot dog” to refer to a type of sausage or frankfurter has an interesting and somewhat debated origin. There are a few theories about how the name came about. The Tad Dorgan cartoon theory is widely accepted, but the other theories also have their proponents. Regardless of its exact origins, the term “hot dog” has become a common and iconic way to refer to this beloved American food.
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Why Are Hot Dogs Called Hot Dogs and What’s the Origin of Hotdogs?
Straight off the bat, the story surrounding the history of the hot dog is contested. Indeed, it’s quite hard to pin down where exactly the savory snack that is sold close to all baseball parks is coming from.
900 BC – 700 AD: The Greeks and the Romans
Seemingly involved in any story relating to Western or globalized culture today, the Greeks are actually the first ones to be credited in the history of the hot dog. They were not the ones who invented the hot dog. They are just here to claim their credits. In Homer’s Odyssey, there is a line about a sausage specifically. It says:
“As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted. . .”
So, that’s a start. Food historians deem this mention in Homer’s Odyssey as the very first mention of something that resembles the most important part of a hot dog. The mention is somewhere around the 9th century B.C., placing the initiation of the hot dog at about 3000 years ago.
Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar
About a thousand years later, in 64 AD, a new development took place for the hot dog. It was the cook of Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar who should be credited for the next step in the evolution of the hot dog.
The cook goes by the name of Gaius. He made sure that Emperor Nero had a meal with an abundance of pig meat, something that was considered the finest of meats. The cook had his own way of preparing his delicacies, which included letting the pigs starve one week before cooking and eating them.
Hot Dog Origin and Discovering Sausage Casing
Although an excellent cook, Gaius forgot to starve one pig before cooking and eating. After roasting, Gaius realized his mistake and wanted to see if it was still suitable to be eaten. He ran a knife into the belly of the pig, expecting to see nothing special while he assessed the situation.
But, the intestines of the pig popped out immediately, all puffed up and hollow. Why is this important? Well, the intestines were first identified as something that would hold other foods. Cook Gaius, thus, discovered the first form of sausage casing.
This is not the first form of casing, however. Natural casing found its roots all the way back in 4000 BC. Still, this was in a different form. That is to say, the first recorded cases of natural casing was in the stomach of a sheep.
Of course, the very shape of the beloved hot dog plays a more than important part in the hot dog’s origin. If it wasn’t the shape of a cylinder, we could just as well call it meatballs or meat sandwiches or whatever.
But, thanks to Gaius, the intestines were discovered as something that could also hold the ground meat and spice mixes. This way, the first forms of the hot dog were born.
Hot Dogs and Mustard
What is a hot dog without its sauce, its bright green relish, some sports peppers, celery salt, or maybe even some pinto beans if you’re feeling Mexican? Indeed, not a lot.
The first real reference to which the sausages are dipped into a sauce came from Leontius of Neapolis, in the 7th century. As a writer, he was certainly influenced by his surroundings and upbringing. He would therefore probably not be the first one to try it, but more so the first one to really describe it as a thing.
In a passage in his book The Life and Miracles of Symeon the Fool, the golden combo between sausage and mustard is mentioned:
‘In [Symeon’s] left hand he held a pot of mustard, and he dipped the sausages in the mustard and ate them from morning on. And he smeared mustard on the mouths of some of those who came to joke with him. Wherefore also a certain rustic, who had leucoma in his two eyes, came to make fun of him. Symeon anointed his eyes with mustard. […] He ran immediately to a doctor […] and was completely blinded.’
Not necessarily the brightest person that is mentioned in the relation between hot dogs and their toppings. Luckily, his taste buds were perfectly fine.
1484 – 1852: The Germans (and a Pinch of Austrians)
After Symeon described the first mustard and sausage match, the hot dog seemed to have stalled in its development for quite some time. Actually, only from 1487 onwards, the hot dog saw new developments in which it would eventually end up in the form we know now.
Who Invented Hot Dogs?
In that year, the first frankfurter was developed in, you guessed it, Frankfurt, Germany. The city celebrated the 500th birthday of the sausage in 1987. Austrians should, however, also get some form of credit in relation to the actual sausage.
That’s because the frankfurter sausage would also be referred to as wienerwurst. The first part of that word, wiener, is believed to be a reference to Vienna (which is officially named Wien in German). The term wienerwurst is therefore literally translated as the Vienna sausage.
In 1852, the butcher’s guild in Frankfurt wanted to claim full ownership of the sausage. So, they introduced a new smoked sausage. It used the casing as discovered by the Roman chef Gaius and was spiced to perfection, renewing their claim on the first actual hot dog.
Dachshund Aren’t Hot Dogs
Staying with the Germans, the first actual references that inspired the contemporary term hot dog started to appear around the 1690s. A German butcher by the name of Johann Georghehner started to promote his dachshund sausages. The literal translation of dachshund is ‘badger dog’.
So indeed, dachshund sausages refer to the dog that is known in the English language as the sausage dog. It is more than probable that this translation actually has something to do with the term dachshund sausages.
It seems that a German named his sausage after a dog because he thought it resembled a dog. However, the actual dog that he was referring to isn’t named a dachshund in German. The actual term that is used in Germany to refer to the sausage dog is Dackel.
So, the German butcher only described what he saw and didn’t actually use the name that was used to refer to the dog. Still, the English-speaking world adopted the term and applied it to the actual dog.
1867 – Now: Adoption and Integration in American Culture
But okay, just a sausage with maybe some sauce is of course not a hotdog. So who invented the hot dog?
Here it really becomes an open battlefield. A lot of German immigrants were trying to sell their European food to the mix of American inhabitants, making the history a bit hard to trace down. So really anyone can make a claim on selling the first hot dog either as a restaurant food or as a street food.
According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes, that’s a thing), it is certain that German immigrants brought the hot dog to the United States.
Although German immigrants already appeared to have sold the popular sausage with sauerkraut and milk rolls, legend has it that the first actual hotdog was inspired by the wife of a German immigrant: Antonoine Feuchtwanger.
Antonoine was a sausage vendor that would sell hot sausages along with many other street vendors. In his case, he could be found in the streets of St. Louis in Missouri. The sausage vendor would provide some white gloves to his customers so that they wouldn’t burn their hands. Pretty clever, but then again, it’s quite the hassle to put on the white gloves all the time.
So although the dachshund ‘dog’ nestled in the American streets, it wasn’t really a success because it was quite inconvenient to eat as a street food. The wife of the German immigrant suggested that he put the sausages in a split bun instead, so that’s what he did.
Antonoine asked his brother-in-law for help, who improvised long soft rolls that were perfect to fit the meat products. The first hot dog bun was thus already made specifically for hot dogs. However, the actual name was still to come. In theory, however, Antonoine had the first actual hot dog stand.
Coney Island Hot Dog
The story of the German immigrants and their influence on the hot dogs doesn’t stop there. In 1867, another German opened up the first actual hot dog selling point in Brooklyn, New York. Charles Feltman was a baker and most probably was inspired by Antonoine to sell sausage in a bun. However, some claim it could also be the other way around.
Charles Feltman opened up his bakery shop on Coney Island. His bakery was located at the corner of 6th Ave and 10th Street. Besides, Charles would also sell through his pie wagon, delivering baked pies to beer saloons along the beaches of Coney Island.
Some clients, however, thought that a piece of pie was too large and wanted to serve hot sandwiches to their customers. In come the hot dogs, something that would become famous in the city’s cuisine.
After some reluctance by the restaurant owners, Feltman would just start to boil sausages, put them in a bun, and hand them out to the shop owners. They liked it, birthing the first hot dog that was actually named a hot dog. His shop was critically acclaimed, selling 3684 sausages in a roll during his first year in business.
From here, Feltman would become a hot person in hot dog history. He built a mini-empire on Coney Island, which would eventually consist of nine restaurants. Quite remarkable for his time. By the 1920s, and after his death, Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion was serving five million customers a year and was billed as the world’s largest restaurant.
Nathan’s Hot Dogs, Baseball Parks, the Name Hot Dog, and American Culture
The rise of the hot dogs obviously didn’t stop there. Although it was brought to the United States, it wasn’t brought as the modern hot dog as we know it now. It should be evident that it definitely took some time.
Just to indicate how ingrained the hot dog became in American culture, president Franklin D. Roosevelt actually introduced it to the king of England: king George VI. Although the first lady was a little reluctant, the king of England ended up liking the hot dogs very much and asked for another one of those roasted pig sausages in a poppy seed bun.
Nathan’s Hot Dogs and Hot Dog
Another remarkable story surrounding the hot dogs comes from a Polish immigrant by the name of Nathan Handwerker. He is known to work at Feltman’s restaurant, sleeping on its floors to save up his salary.
Why would you do that? Well, he wanted to start his own shop. At the end of the first year, he saved 300 dollars and would open his own hot dog stand. Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog stand was intended to be competitive: he sold his hot dogs for only five cents, as compared to the 10 cents that Feltman was asking at his hot dog stand.
What a time to be alive, hot dogs for just five cents.
Nathan’s hot dogs grew to famous proportions, initiating the first hot dog eating contest. Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest is still running to this day on Coney Island. And famous it is indeed, accumulating up to 35,000 spectators (!) every year.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about the hot dog and not mention its presence at any baseball game. Hot dog history wouldn’t be the same without it, since it catapulted the hot sausages in a hot dog bun to new heights.
The legend of the first hot dogs sold at baseball games took place in 1893. The owner of a St. Louis Bar introduced the sausages that were sold by their fellow towner Antonoine to go with the beer sold at the parks. However, it’s literally just a legend without real (written) backup.
The Hot Dog at New York Polo Grounds
Another story comes from a baseball game of the New York Giants at the New York Polo Grounds. On a cold April day in 1902, concessionaire Harry Stevens was losing money trying to sell ice cream and ice-cold sodas.
He sent his salesmen out to buy up all the dachshund sausages they could find, ideally with an accompanying hot dog bun. In less than an hour, his vendors were hawking hot dogs from portable hot water tanks, selling tremendous amounts. From here, Harry knew it was something that should be repeated for the next game.
Why Are Hot Dogs Called Hot Dogs? The Term Hot Dog
The same story as the one from Harry Stevens inspired the actual name ‘hot dog’. It comes from a cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal, who was actually sitting in the stadiums when the hot dogs were sold.
The vendors would call out: ‘Red hot! Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!’. With his deadline for a new cartoon nearing, the cartoonist Tad Dorgan used the scene to inspire his latest cartoon. A true hot dog cartoon it would become since he had to make up a new name. That is to say, he could understand ‘red hots’, but didn’t know how to write dachshund. He did know what it meant, however, so he decided to coin the term hot dog. The New York Journal published his cartoons. The cartoon blew up, meaning that the origin story about the name Hot Dog has to be credited to a cartoonist from the early 1900s.