First Hamburger: The Top Ten Myths About Who Invented It

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Who Invented the first hamburger Top Ten MythsFor some reason (and probably a good one if you think about it), the powers that be have decreed May 28th as “National Hamburger Day.” This coincides nicely with the month of May either being “National Hamburger Month” and “National Burger Month,” depending on whose press release you read.

As a result, no doubt you’ve read, listened to, or watched something about the almighty burger at your favorite news outlet. The question you should ask (but won’t know to) is whether what you’re reading, hearing, or seeing is true. Unfortunately, in all likelihood, probably not.

To help set the record straight, here are the top ten myths about the origin of the first hamburger:

Myth #10: The hamburger was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Texas won’t like to hear this one. This story began with a promotional campaign by the owner of more than a dozen hamburger franchises shortly after World War II. It referenced an unnamed vendor who sold hamburgers on the midway of the Fair. In 1970, Clint Murchison, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, teamed up with a Dallas Morning News writer to identify this mystery man as Fletcher Davis.

It turns out Davis did go to the Fair as a vendor, but for a pottery company, not to sell hamburgers. Besides, hamburgers were already being sold across the country well before 1904. Even if Davis sold hamburgers in his adoptive hometown of Athens, Texas, he didn’t arrive there until after the earliest recorded mention of lunch wagons selling hamburgers.

Myth #9: The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis catapulted the hamburger to popularity.
Advocates of the 1904 World’s Fair origin story are grasping for straws with this myth. By 1900, “red-hot hamburger sandwiches” were so popular restaurant owners in Princeton, Indiana petitioned city council to remove street vendors selling them. St. Louis can’t even get credit for adding the bun, because burgers and buns were a thing at least two years earlier when newspapers reported high sales of hamburger buns at the Elk’s Jubilee carnival in Davenport, Iowa. But did you know what carnival delight was invented specifically for the 1904 World’s Fair? A patent for a machine to make “Fairy Floss” was issued in 1903 specifically for operation at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. What is “Fairy Floss.” Today we know it by the name “Cotton Candy.”

Myth #8: The hamburger was invented in New Haven, Connecticut at Louis’ Lunch in 1900.
Yalies no doubt will have a beef when they hear this. Sorry, but newspaper articles as early as 1893 report street carts and saloons selling hamburgers. The story, however, of how Louis Lassen’s descendants fought city hall (in this case, Yale University) to successfully save their franchise is a worthy one.

Myth #7: Hamburgers always were associated with buns.
No, it wasn’t pita bread, either, but you’re close. Give Louis’ Lunch credit for insisting a real hamburger is not served on a bun, but between two slices of bread. Indeed, journalists reported and the most credible origin stories confirm hamburger patties were served within a v-shaped wedge cut from a loaf of bread.

Myth #6: Hamburgers were invented in Hamburg, Germany.
Also known as the “How Ray Kroc’s publicity stunt backfired but ended up working anyway.” This is perhaps one of the most commonly quoted myths, mostly because it sounds so convenient. Why America did inherit many food dishes from the European homeland of its immigrants, the hamburger wasn’t one of them. This was proved in early 1965 when Ray Kroc sent a McDonald’s VP to present the Mayor of Hamburg, Germany with a plaque honoring the city for inventing the hamburger. The Mayor accepted the gift but admitted the only thing he was sure of was that the hamburger wasn’t invented in his city.

Myth #5: Hamburgers were invented in medieval Eurasia.
Barbarians might have been at the gate, but they left their grills at home. Much like the strained St. Louis World’s Fair “popularity” story, advocates of the European origin move the goalposts to Russia, claiming it was the Tartars who famously created their namesake “beefsteak tartare,” a raw beef entrée, who “invented” the hamburger. Well, it may have some similarities (i.e., chopped beef), but saying “beefsteak tartare” is like saying a monkey is a man. Besides, whether you call it “boulette” (French) or “frikadelle” (German), it’s still served cold, not sizzling hot like a hamburger. Incidentally, there are other popular myths involving the 11th Century Mongols riding on raw beef to flatten them, the delicacy making its way to Moscow and then to Hamburg, Germany before immigrants took it to New York City. We already know about the Hamburg, Germany myth, and, since there’s no direct sourcing on this Mongol story, we have to classify it as a myth, too.

Myth #4: Hamburgers are just Hamburg Steaks on a bun.
Spoiler alert: Hamburg Steaks aren’t from Hamburg, either. If you are to believe his marketing literature, Dr. James H. Salisbury came up with the idea to treat ailing Civil War soldiers in 1863 with a chopped beef concoction we know today as “Salisbury steak.” No later than 1872 do we begin to see restaurants serving “Hamburg steak.” The latter name stuck as Salisbury’s popular medical diet lost favor, but World War I saved his name and today you don’t buy “Hamburg steak” frozen dinners, you buy “Salisbury steak” frozen dinners.

Myth #3: Hamburgers were always called “hamburgers.”
Diner menus don’t tell lies. And the name has nothing to do with pigs or “ham.” People often ask, “Why are they called ‘hamburgers’ if they aren’t made of ham?” Truth be told, early menus published in newspaper ads referred to what has become America’s most popular fast food as a “hamburg sandwich.” Very soon after, though, you see them written as being called “hamburger sandwiches” or simply “hamburgers.” The terms were used interchangeably through the late 1800s and early 1900s. And in no case were any pigs harmed in the making of these sandwiches.

Myth #2: The cheeseburger was invented in Southern California in the 1920s.
For those keeping score, National Cheeseburger Day is September 18th (remember that date). There are many competing claims of who invented the first cheeseburger as well as who coined the word “cheeseburger.” All of these stories center around the decades of the 1920s and 1930s. We know the term “cheeseburger” is used in newspaper ads as early as 1931. In fact, as early as 1894 we see newspaper stories describing hamburgers served with cheese.

Myth #1: Hamburgers were “invented.”
They were sold. And maybe it does have something to do with pigs (but still not ham). It’s nearly impossible to say for certain who was the first person to put a hamburger patty between two slices of bread. It’s much easier to determine the most likely person to have sold the first hamburger. Of the two earliest stories (1885), the most likely vendor to flip the first burger was the brotherly duo of Frank and Charles Menches at the Erie County Fair outside of Buffalo, New York. Independent contemporary sources confirm much of the facts Frank Menches relayed to journalist John C. Kunzog.

The Menches brothers sold out of their popular pork sausage sandwiches. When Frank tried to buy more pork from a local butcher, the butcher refused and convinced Frank to try chopped beef instead. It was a hit! When asked by a satisfied customer for the name of this new sandwich, the boys were perplexed. They had no name. Frank looked up and saw a banner promoting the Erie County Fair. Except the sign honored the town the fair was being held in and said, “Hamburg Fair.” Frank told the customer the name of the sandwich was a “Hamburg sandwich.” The name stuck.

Oh, by the way, what was the day this first ever hamburger was sold? In the year 1885 on Friday, September 18th, (now you know why I told you to remember that date).

Are interested in learning more about the true history of the hamburger? Click here to buy and read Hamburger Dreams: How Classic Crime Solving Techniques Helped Crack the Case of America’s Greatest Culinary Mystery.

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