×

History Of The Hot Dog: Why Do We Call Them Dogs? Where Do They Come From?

1800s | May 13, 2020

Hot dogs were a favorite of street vendors. (Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

There's nothing more America than a hot dog. You can find them being sold at street corners, baseball stadiums, and amusement parks or served at backyard cookouts, graduation parties, and holiday celebrations across the nation. They can be topped with cheese, chili, onions, jalapenos, pickle relish, and the traditional ketchup and mustard combination. Even though the hot dog is synonymous with America, the handheld meal hails from Germany, the best country for wurst sausages. They've been cooking up hot dogs for centuries, long before it came to America and earned its canine moniker. Here is a brief story of the all-American hot dog, its German roots, and how it got its odd name.

The Germans claim the hot dog, but they may have had Roman origins. (theculturetrip.com)

Emperor Nero's Sausage

According to legend dating back to around the first century AD, the Roman emperor Nero instructed his cook, Gaius, to roast a pig one night. When the cook cut into the hog, however, he realized that the butcher had not properly cleaned out the animal's abdominal cavity, leaving its empty intestines behind. That's when Gaius had a stroke of brilliance: He removed the organ, stuffed the casing with minced meat and spices, and cooked it over hot coals. The dish delighted Nero and his guests and started a culinary trend, but while the Romans may claim the origin of the sausage, it was the Germans who made it their own. 

Americans once thought hot dogs were made with dog meat. (ruerea.com)

No Dogs Were Harmed In The Making Of This Sausage

German immigrants to the United States in the 1800s tried to introduce their new countrymen to the wonders of German sausages, but they often encountered suspicion. It was not uncommon for German people at that time to eat dog meat, so when these new neighbors offered them a sausage link, many Americans eyed it with contempt, fearing it could contain a most unwanted ingredient. 

Hot dogs are an American favorite. (Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Hot Dachshund

One German immigrant who lived in New York City in the 1860s whose name has been lost to time had no fear of this association. Noticing that the shape of the hot German sausages he sold from his street cart resembled the body of a dachshund, an elongated and stubby-legged German dog, he started referring to them as "little dogs." When another German immigrant, Charles Feltman, opened the first hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1871, he called his product "little dachshund" sausages.

The bun kept the customer's fingers from being burned. (gianteagle.com)

Red Hot In A Bun

Antoine Feuchtwanger, another German immigrant, pushed an infamous sausage cart around the streets of St. Louis in 1880. His "red hot" sausages were known to be so hot that he offered each customer a pair of gloves so they wouldn't burn their fingers. The problem was that folks kept forgetting to return the gloves, and he was the one who ended up eating (the cost, that is). One day, his wife suggested that he serve his red hots in a split bun. Not only would it protect customers' hands, she explained, it was also a tasty addition. Her brother just happened to be a baker, so her motives are certainly suspect, but you can't argue with her logic.

Hot dogs and baseball are a classic American partnership. (history.com)

The Hot Dog Meets Baseball

In the late 1890s, hot dogs became a favorite ballpark treat, but we aren't exactly sure who to credit with this perfect pairing. According to some stories, the owner of the St. Louis Browns baseball team, Chris Von de Ahe, began offering hot dogs with beer at his bar adjacent to the stadium. Other stories claim that it was a concession stand owner at the New York Giants's stadium named Harry Stevens who first brought the hot dog to the ballpark. What is clear is that the hot dog was firmly established in American baseball stadiums by 1893. 

An American favorite. (history.com)

A Cartoon Dog

Some sources claim that a newspaper cartoonist named Thomas Aloysius "Tad" Dorgan coined the term "hot dog" in one of his cartoon from 1900, which supposedly depicted a vendor selling hot dogs at a New York Giants baseball game. While the link between hot dogs and baseball is interesting, the term "hot dog" was almost certainly already in use, and all copies of Dorgan's hot dog cartoon have been lost. 

How many hot dogs could you eat in ten minutes? (denverpost.com)

Nathan's Hot Dogs

Remember Charles Feltman, the man who owned a hot dog stand in Coney Island? In 1916, one of his long-time employees, a Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker, opened his own Coney Island hot dog stand and began selling his Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs for half the price of Feltman's hot dogs. He eventually ran his former boss out of business and became the undisputed king of Coney Island hot dogs. Nathan's hot dogs are now world famous, to the point that fans can buy them in stores for their own backyard cookouts, and they are sure to turn on the TV every Fourth of July to watch the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. Perennial favorite Joey Chestnut currently holds the world record after eating 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes during the 2018 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. 

Tags: american food | baseball | dogs | food | Germany

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.