Hamburger WhoDunit Part II: The Shrine of the Four (and a half?)

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(The second episode in a series of seven)

“You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Illustration from the Monday, July 23, 1894 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

Thus spoke crime fighting sleuth Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring his most-popular character, as published in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. By coincidence, the most noted hamburger origin stories occurred within a few years on either side of this date. It’s fitting, then, that we employ the deductive techniques of the Baker Street mastermind in attempting to solve one of histories greatest culinary mysteries: Who sold the first hamburger.

First, as in all good police thrillers, let’s take a look at our line-up of suspects (in reverse chronological order). In each case, their hometowns have created what amounts to a shrine to their claims. We count them as four and a half because two are inexorably tied together. Still, for our purposes we’ll untie them. Here’s the line-up:

Suspect #½:  An Unknown Vendor at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Year of Claim: 1904
Initial Source: New York Tribune article (1904)

Suspect #1: Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch
Location: New Haven, Connecticut
Year of Claim: 1900
Initial Source: Bennington Banner article based on UPI story (1967)

Suspect #2: Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis
Location: Athens, Texas
Year of Claim: “Late 1880s”
Initial Source: Frank Tolbert, Dallas Morning News column (1976)

Suspect #3: Charles “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen
Location: Outagamie County Fair, Seymour, Wisconsin
Year of Claim: 1885
Initial Source: The Post-Crescent article (1934), Green Bay Press-Gazette article (1937)

Suspect #4: Frank and Charles Menches
Location: Hamburg, New York
Year of Claim: 1885
Initial Source: 1920s Interview, Tambark and Tinsel, by John Kunzog (1970)

Having identified the suspects, we need to focus on the “weapon.” In this case, it’s the hamburger itself. Now, the trouble is, sometimes a new creation is not named until it becomes popular enough to merit a name. As a result, what we call “hamburger” may also be called a “Hamburger Sandwich,” “Hamburger Steak Sandwich,” or a “Hamburg Steak Sandwich.” Complicating matters is the fact we have a dish, prepared in a very similar fashion, called a “Hamburg Steak.”

Early recipes for “Hamburg Steak” call for steak to be minced, mixed with egg and formed in various shapes before frying in butter and served on a plate covered in gravy. This is not a sandwich. This is an entrée served on a dish. You eat a Hamburg Steak with a knife and a fork while sitting at a table. You eat a hamburger like you eat any other sandwich – with your hands and often while standing or walking. A Hamburg Steak, therefore, is clearly not a hamburger.

Armed with these facts, we can begin our Sherlock Holmes method to “eliminate the impossible.” We need not know anything more about our suspects than the date of their claim. If we can find a reference to a hamburger (in any of its various names) prior to that date, then we can deduce it’s impossible that suspect could have invented the hamburger.

The best (and easiest) manner to accomplish this task is to access digitized records of periodicals and newspapers. Fortunately, we have several free resources: The Library of Congress, FultonHistory.com, and the historic New York newspapers web-site. In addition, I subscribed to newspapers.com, a subscription-based site that contains digitized newspapers over and above what’s available from the free resources.

Here’s how the “eliminate the impossible” method works. Let’s focus on our first suspect: The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a.k.a., “The St. Louis World’s Fair.” This event occurred from April 30th, 1904 through December 1st, 1904. If the hamburger were truly invented at this event by “an unknown vendor,” we should see no published record of a “hamburger sandwich” prior to that date.

It just so happens there’s an advertisement for a diner called The New Lunch Room in the Friday, April 22, 1904 issue of The Poultney Journal. The advertisement in this Vermont newspaper featured the restaurant’s menu. The top of the list reads “Hamburg Sandwich….. 10 cents.” This appeared a week before the St. Louis World’s Fair even started. Clearly, the hamburger was not invented at the Fair in St. Louis in 1904.

This isn’t necessarily breaking news. Other historians and reporters have previously uncovered this fact. Fans of the St. Louis World’s Fair offer two counterpoints. First, you might hear them say, “We might not have invented the hamburger, but we’re the place where the hamburger was first placed on a bun.” This is also not true. Two years before the St. Louis event, on Saturday, June 28, 1902, there’s an article on page 7 of the Davenport Republican under the headline “Last Day of Carnival.” Buried deep within the story is this quote: “One Hamburger sandwich man disposed of 400 buns to hungry pedestrians Thursday, and yet he remarked that business was very dull.” Sorry, St. Louis, you can’t claim the “hamburger on a bun” idea, either.

Still, the St. Louis advocates remain steadfast. “At least we’re the place that popularized the hamburger.” This may be a bit subjective. While there are contemporary reports of this, as early as 1900 the popularity of the “red-hot hamburger sandwiches” caused a ruckus in Princeton, Indiana, as reported in consecutive issues of the Princeton-Clarion Leader (“Hamburg Men Numerous,” Friday, September 21, 1900 and “Kick on Hamburg – Restaurant Men File Petition Against Street Lunch Men,” Saturday, September 22, 1900).

Your eyes might have noticed the year “1900.” That’s the same year as Louis Lassen’s claim. Louis’ Lunch accumulated plenty of affidavits to attest to this event. It was enough to convince the New Haven Preservation Trust to bestow “Landmark status” on the original restaurant in 1967, according to the New York Times (“Burger ‘Birthplace’ Faces Bulldozer,” Saturday, January 12, 1974, p.35).

Unfortunately for those offering testimony, the historical record does not support Louis’ Lunch claim to be the first establishment to serve a hamburger. Harper and Jones, an Omaha, Nebraska restaurant, placed several ads in the Iowa State Bystander beginning in September of 1899. Their “Hamburg Sandwich” was listed for only five cents.

As further evidence that a “Hamburg Sandwich” and “Hamburg Steak” were not considered the same thing in the nineteenth century, we need look no further than the menu of the American Restaurant in Manila. That menu contains a listing for a ‘Hamburg sandwich” and a separate listing for a “Hamburg steak.” You might note the steak costs more than twice the cost of the sandwich.

One of the earliest newspaper accounts of a hamburger comes from the Monday, July 23, 1894 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. A feature story on page seven tells the complete story of how hamburgers are made. Beneath the headline (““Odors of the Onion – A New Night Feature of City Life – Breezes Pregnant With the Hamburger – How Curbstone Chefs Dispense Fragrant Food From Their Little Carts.”) you’ll even find illustrations of the “chef” flipping two hamburgers at once and a satisfied patron eating the burger as he walks from the cart.

The earliest reference I’ve found (so far) is a series of ads in the Shiner Gazette (outside of San Antonio) that ran from at least April to August in 1894. The classified ad states “Hamburger steak sandwiches every day in the week at Barny’s saloon, Moulton.”

With the help of Sherlock Holmes, we have dispatched with two of the suspects – the St. Louis World’s Fair and Louis’ Lunch. But we’ve gone as far as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation can take us. Next, we’ll apply tracking techniques of the Old West in…

The Texas Two Step

…continued next week…

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