Hot (Diggity) Dog

by Hugh Rawson

Hot dog may well be American’s most distinctive contribution to international cuisine, linguistically as well as actually.  The hot dog’s elevated position dates to at least June 11, 1939, when Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor at their home in Hyde Park, N.Y. The menu for what was billed as a picnic luncheon that day featured ham, turkey, and “Hot Dogs (if weather permits).”

The weather did permit, and The New York Times reported on its front page the next day:


The King ate two hot dogs – “with gusto,” according to historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (The Queen was more wary. She attacked her hot dog and bun with knife and fork.) Still, FDR could hardly have done better. The purpose of the royal visit was strategic as well as social.  Roosevelt wanted to win domestic support for an alliance with Great Britain. By downing two hot dogs, the King demonstrated that he was a regular guy, and gained considerable good will for his country in the process.

The precise origins of the hot dog – either the food or the word – are not known. An oft-repeated story is that frankfurters on rolls were first sold in 1901 by Harry Stevens at New York City’s Polo Grounds, then home to the Giants baseball team. It was a chilly day in April and the crowd was in no mood for cold refreshments. Stevens improvised, so it is said, telling his men to buy “those long dachshund sausages” and rolls from neighborhood butchers and bakers, then heat them in a kitchen under the stands.

In the press box, according to this account, was the great cartoonist, Thomas A. Dorgan – “TAD,” as he was known, since that is how he signed his work. Hearing Stevens’s men shout as they worked the aisles, “Red-hot. Get a red-hot dachshund sausage in a roll,” TAD said to himself, “Dachshund – that means dog. Why not call them hot dogs?” And the next day he introduced the term to the world in the form of visual pun, drawing a barking dachshund in a bun with the label “hot dog.”

Alas, this marvelous myth was thoroughly disproved by a trio of indefatigable word-sleuths, Gerald Leonard Cohen, Barry A. Popik, and David Shulman, in Origin of the Term ‘Hot Dog’ (2004). It turns out that many pre-1901 examples of hot dog have been found, that dachshund sausage is a later coinage than hot dog, that the supposed cartoon never appeared in any newspaper, and that sausages on buns were sold long before Stevens came on to the scene. Credit for the culinary innovation often is given to a Coney Island, N.Y.,  pie peddler, Charles Feltman, who began offering warm sausages on sliced rolls in 1867 (or 1874; accounts vary). Still, TAD had a hand in popularizing the term, portraying frankfurters as living hot dogs in cartoons about a six-day bike race that appeared on December 12 and 13, 1906, in the New York Evening Journal. (TAD had a great feel for language, helping to introduce malarkey, hard-boiled, kibitzer, and other slang terms into mainstream American English.)

Before TAD glommed on to it, hot dog was common in college slang, appearing during the latter 1890s in campus publications at Yale, Harvard, Cornell, and other citadels of higher education. Fogging the issue somewhat, hot dog also began to be employed about this time in the sense of “superior,” “tip-top,” or “flashy,” but this seems to have had less to do with sausages than with hot in such then-current phrases as hot baby, hot dish, and hot stuff. The earliest known collegiate hot dog of the edible sort comes from The Yale Record of October 19, 1895: “How they contentedly munch hot dogs during the whole [chapel] service.”  Not so coincidentally, the first all-night luncheon wagon near the Yale campus had opened just the previous year. It was called The Kennel Club or, less formally, The Dog Wagon, because its menu featured frankfurters, also known as dogs, doggies, and bow-wows.

Etymology continues to advance, however, going backwards in time. Since the publication of Origins in 2004, earlier examples of hot dog have been found. For example, in a report on May 20, 1893, on a decision to ban “frankfurter sausage peddlers” from the seaside resort of Asbury Park, the New Brunswick, N.J., Daily Times observed that “These ‘hot dog’ peddlers, as they are familiarly called, have carried on their business uninterrupted with as much persistence and tact as their fellow merchants on Coney Island.” Enclosure of the term in quote marks suggests that it was a new one to the writer.

And why were frankfurters known as dogs or bow-wows? The answer is not appetizing:  Butchers in the nineteenth century were widely believed, and not without cause, to sometimes use horse and dog meat in making sausages. Nor were offenders too particular about their sources of supply. Thus, a dog-sandwich scandal in New Jersey in 1843 led the editor of the New York City Subterranean, Mike Walsh (he also popularized shyster meaning “lawyer,” but that is a story for another time), to report that “to such an extent is this infamous business carried, that there are a regular lot of Jerseymen who hang about the ferries on the other side [of the Hudson River], to seduce away and capture every dog who goes over in boats with his master. A gentleman of our acquaintance informs us that he has lost in this way seven valuable animals in his visits to Hoboken in the last season.”

Fears about the fate of dogs that had gone missing also are reflected in a song that Yale students sang in the mid-1870s:

Oh where, oh where is my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where can he be?
Bologna sausage is very good.
And many of them I see;
Oh where, oh where is my little dog gone?
I guess they make ’em of he.

It probably is just as well for Anglo-American relations that King George and Queen Elizabeth were not familiar with the history of the delicacy served to them on that June day in 1939.

5 thoughts on “Hot (Diggity) Dog

  1. Harry

    Two observations: Eleanor Roosevelt was not present at the famous picnic, according to Rangers at the Roosevelt Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY. High Cottage, where the event occurred, was FDR’s personal retreat; it was especially designed for his wheelchair, and the media were banned. The President could wheel around and the King could stammer and no one would notice. They could relax in private.

    On the more crass, commercial scale: there is a persistent New York legend that Nathan Handwerker (of “Nathan’s Famous” fame) insisted on referring to his sausages as “Frankfurters,” while spreading the rumor that his rival, Feltman, made his “hot dogs” with dog meat. I have not seen any evidence to support this tale, but Feldman is long gone and Nathan’s (albeit now part of a conglomerate) remains.

    1. Hugh Rawson

      I should have been more precise: the picnic was held at FDR’s cottage on the Hyde Park estate. It was not an intimate affair, however. Some 150 attended, according to the NY Times story on the following day. (The media, excluded from the event, were given a complete account of the picnic, including names and seating arrangements. This may have been the world’s firsdt picnic with a receiving line.)The Times story says that Eleanor was at the picnic, circulating among the guests at the tables.
      I hadn’t heard the rumor that you mention. Feltman, the itinerant peddler of pies and hot dogs, opened a restaurant in which Handwerker was employed as a grill-man. Handwerker opened his own restaurant in 1916 and made Nathan’s Famous famous.The Nathan’s Famous website maintains that the 1939 picnic at Hyde Park featured Nathan’s hot dogs. According to archives at Hyde Park, however, the chosen brand that day was Swift’s — and I would put my money on the Hyde Park records.

  2. Hugh Rawson

    Please forgive the typo in line 6. Word should be “first,” not “firsdt.” It has been a long day.

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