A Brief History of Hot Dogs — Including Why They’re Called Hot Dogs in the First Place

published May 21, 2022
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Three hot dogs on a platter with condiments in bowls nearby
Credit: Perry Santanachote
Air Fryer Hot Dogs

Grilled vs. steamed, Chicago-style vs. New York-cart, corn-battered vs. chili cheese, pork vs. beef, footlong vs. cocktail, sandwich vs … hot dog, the rivalries are as endless as the variety of these hallowed links. Frankfurters, wieners, coneys, brats — hot dogs reign as one of the most quintessentially American foods. Today, Americans eat an estimated 7 billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Fit for a king (President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously served them to King George VI, who loved them so much he asked for seconds), and a treasured savory treat for all, hot dogs are experiencing a modern renaissance.

Credit: Shelly Westerhausen Worcel

So where do hot dogs come from? Sausages exist in nearly every culture and offer an illuminating glimpse into the diversity of global flavors and food histories. Look no further than the carts of New York City or the night markets of Thailand, and the andouille, kielbasa, salami, chorizo, and more sold at grocery stores around the world to see their universal appeal. 

As it turns out, the backstory behind one of the more controversial sausages is no different. It’s meaty, encased in cultural traditions, and filled with spicy anecdotes. Grab your picnic blanket and a bun, and I’ll unravel the intercontinental tale of the hot dog. 

Credit: Amanda Marikar

The origin story goes far back — and it’s a contentious one.

The hot dog seems synonymous with ballparks, backyard cookouts, and the U.S., but the original franks have a rich history possibly dating back to the Roman empire, and perhaps even before that, as referenced in Homer’s Odyssey. According to some lore, Roman Emperor Nero’s cook Gaius happened upon the discovery of sausages when making the most of a roasted pig. Greek playwright Aristophanes satirized a sausage vendor in his play, The Knights (424 B.C.E.), and nascent sausage-making evolved in ancient China.

To this day Germany and Austria contend which country is responsible for the origin of popular sausage. Both countries boast dozens of variations on seasoned meat in casings, including frankfurters (from Frankfurt, Germany), wienerwurst (from “Wien,” Vienna, Austria), weisswurst, bratwurst, and beyond. The city of Frankfurt staked its claim as the birthplace with a celebration of 500 years of the frankfurter in 1987. Another account of the hot dog’s German ancestry suggests that “dachshund sausages” (named for the cute, squat, sausage-shaped pups) were created by Johann Georghehner, a butcher living in Coburg, Germany in the late 1600s, who then traveled to Frankfurt to peddle his wursts.

The Austrian origin story contends that “wieners” were invented in the 19th century by Austro-Hungarians Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany, who brought these tasty meat parcels to The World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Throngs of fairgoers helped to popularize hot dogs as the ideal portable meal.

While there are myriad accounts of the history of the hot dog in the U.S, all versions of the story attribute the arrival of sausages stateside to European immigrants, who carried the culinary traditions of their birthplaces to their new home. Some say a German pushcart vendor first sold sausages with milk rolls and sauerkraut in lower Manhattan in the 1860s, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes, that actually exists). Another story purports that German baker Charles Feltman introduced the dogs at his stand on Coney Island in 1871, selling thousands of “red hots” in his first year of business.

Credit: Amanda Marikar

Their rise in popularity is more clear and remains ever-present.

Regardless of the first person to bring sausages to our shores, one particular maven is indisputably responsible for exploding the popularity of this hand-held delicacy: Nathan’s Famous’ eponymous founder, Nathan Handwerker. A Jewish immigrant from Poland, Handwerker arrived in New York City with very little to his name, working at (and residing in) a Coney Island hot dog stand until he saved enough money to purchase a shop. An astute businessman, Handwerker sold his dogs for less than his competitors, sending them out of business, and birthing the hot dog chain we all know today.

Nathan’s snappy all-beef dogs and crinkle-cut fries, complete with the little red fork, are a nostalgic delight relished by many to this day. (Incidentally, Coney Island is probably where the hot dog synonym “coney” derives from — unless it’s Michigan, where Detroit Coney Islands are still incredibly popular. In 1883, around the same time Nathan began building his Coney Island empire, a Bavarian teen immigrated to Detroit to work as a butcher’s apprentice, opened his own shop. For what it’s worth, Coney Island is also home to today’s Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, where this years’ competitors will have the opportunity to unseat reigning 14-time Mustard Belt champ and world record holder — at 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes — Joey Chestnut on July 4.

No hot dog history would be complete without a chapter dedicated to the ubiquitous and beloved Oscar Mayer weiner. Mayer innovated on traditional European techniques to bring hot dogs, bacon, bologna, and other meats to the American home, streamlining packaging, upholding new quality control standards, and rapidly expanding to the national market. In the midst of the Great Depression in 1936, the Oscar Mayer company launched its first “weinermobile,” a hot dog on wheels, to lift the country’s spirits, with the added benefit of advertising the affordable sausage it portrayed. Oscar Mayer’s catchy jingle (1963) and signature yellow label (1929) have made the brand unmistakable, and you’ll find them sizzling on grills worldwide today.

The introduction of the hot dog bun presents its own questions: Was it a German innovation to protect hands from the scalding dogs? Or did the aforementioned Coney Island baker Charles Feltman pioneer red hots on a bun? Or was it Austrian immigrant Ignatz Frischmann who first nestled his hot dogs in a Vienna roll, for a handier, more form-fitting vessel than a slice of bread? (Bruce Kraig, hot dog scholar and writer of “Hot Dog: A Global History” seems to approve of this version of the story.)

Credit: Amanda Marikar

There are multiple theories about how they got their name.

Just as with the origin of the bun, there are at least three plausible explanations for how the hot dog got its name. The first story unsurprisingly involves baseball, and although it has been extensively researched and widely refuted, it still spins a charming yarn: At a chilly New York Giants game at the turn of the 20th century, concessionaire Harry Stevens had trouble hawking ice cream and cold soda, so he cleverly pivoted to serving warm sausages on Vienna rolls, apparently encouraging his vendors to entice patrons by yelling: “Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” Sports cartoonist Thomas Aloysius “TAD” Dorgan happened to observe this sales pitch and sketched a picture of a dachshund on a bun for the New York Evening Journal, captioning it “Hot dog!” because he could not remember how to spell “dachshund.”

The second explanation also pertains to the ball park. The legend goes that busy snack seller Adolf Gehring ran out of his usual provisions at a ballgame in St. Louis in 1903. In a pinch, he bought out the butcher’s stock of wieners and baker’s buns to offer “meat sandwiches.” Someone in the hungry crowd called out “Give me one of those dogs!” and the name apparently stuck. Gehring himself propagated this tale, and it too, is thought to be only partially true. 

The most likely etymology hypothesizes that the name “hot dog” originated with a joke. As cited in the definitive academic study on the subject, “Origin of the Term ‘Hot Dog,’” by Dr. Gerald Cohen, Barry Popik, and David Shulman, “the term was based on the popular 19th-century belief that dog meat could turn up in sausages, and this belief had a basis in fact.” Evidently students at Yale coined the slang in the 1890s as dark humor, at a time when butchers were known to use creative means to source sausage fillings. While it’s not the most pleasant thought for most Western palates, according to Cohen’s exhaustive book, it is the most well-evidenced theory. 

Do you have a theory about how the hot dog got its name? Tell us in the comments below.