What’s in a Name? The Surprising Origins of the Hot Dog

Introduction

Hot dogs are a beloved American food item that have become iconic in American culture. The distinctive red hot dog carts found on city street corners, hot dog eating contests, and ballpark franks are all part of the lore surrounding this sandwich. However, hot dogs were not always known by this name. In fact, the origins of the term “hot dog” are shrouded in some mystery. In this article, we will explore the fascinating history behind the name of this iconic American food.

What were hot dogs called before the name ‘hot dog’

Before the term “hot dog” became popular, sausage sandwiches sold at baseball games in the early 1900s went by a variety of different names. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, these sausages were commonly referred to as “red hots” and “frankfurters” (Hot Dog History | NHDSC). Other names like “weenies” and “dachshund sausages” were also used.

early names for hot dogs like 'red hots'

Vendors at baseball stadiums in particular were known to call them “dogs” or “dachshund sausages” as a joke referring to their long, thin shape, similar to a dachshund dog breed. According to Dictionary.com, over time this likely evolved into the term “hot dog” that we know today (How The Hot Dog Got Its Silly Name | Dictionary.com). The new name “hot dog” began growing in popularity in the early 1900s, eventually overtaking the other terms used for sausage sandwiches.

When did the name ‘hot dog’ become popular?

The exact origins of the term “hot dog” are unclear, but stories point to the name becoming popular around 1900-1905 at American baseball games. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC), usage of the term “hot dog” became widespread in the United States by the early 1900s.

Multiple people have claimed to have coined the name “hot dog.” Charles Feltman opened up the first hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1867 and later added a heated bun to his hot sausages. By the 1890s, he was selling them at the Polo Grounds under the name “red hots.” Some say this could have led to the “hot dog” name catching on (1).

Concessionaire Harry Stevens is also credited with popularizing “hot dog” in the early 1900s. Stevens sold hot dogs at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition and later began selling them at New York Polo Grounds in 1901. Stories say he dubbed them “hot dogs” after hearing a cartoonist unable to remember the name “dachshund sausage” (2).

Regardless of the exact origin, the name “hot dog” was firmly established in American culture by the early 20th century.

Sources:

(1) https://www.hot-dog.org/culture/hot-dog-history

(2) https://www.britannica.com/topic/hot-dog

Theories on the origin of the name ‘hot dog’

There are several theories on the origin of the term “hot dog.” One of the most well-known is that it was coined by a newspaper cartoonist in the early 1900s. According to a story published in the History Cooperative, the name was first used in a cartoon by Tad Dorgan for the New York Evening Journal in 1906. The cartoon showed vendors selling hot dogs at a baseball game, with the caption “hot dogs” referring to the suggestive shape of the sausages.

theories on the origin of the term 'hot dog'

Another speculated origin refers to the common practice of hot dog vendors stealing the sausages they were selling. As written in The Spruce Eats, thieves would jokingly say they were selling “hot dogs” as a code word that the sausages were stolen. This meaning then evolved into the popular moniker we know today.

Some sources also suggest the name could have derived from the fact that hot sausage sandwiches were often sold next to hot dog carts in New York. The proximity led people to associate the name “hot dogs” with the sandwiches. However, the cartoonist theory remains one of the most widely cited possibilities for how we ended up with the iconic name “hot dog.”

Spread of the term ‘hot dog’

The term “hot dog” became more popular and widespread in the early 1900s. It started being used in writing, menus, and advertising during this time. For example, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, cartoonist Tad Dorgan sketched his ideas of what he heard vendors at a New York Polo Grounds baseball game yelling in 1901. His drawing included a caption about the “hot dachshund sausages,” showing the term “hot dog” taking hold (https://www.hot-dog.org/culture/hot-dog-history).

usage of 'hot dog' spreading in early 1900s

The new moniker for sausages on buns seemed to resonate with Americans. It was punchy, fun, and memorable. Soon hot dogs were showing up on menus and signs across the country. Coney Island in New York claimed to have coined the term and popularized hot dogs starting in the late 1800s.

The popularity of hot dogs grew through the 1900s, becoming an iconic American food. In 1994, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council formed to advocate for hot dogs and provide information about their history and impact on culture.

Hot dog terminology variations

Hot dogs are known by many different names across the United States. Regional terminology reflects local preferences and recipes. The names “red hot” and “red hots” are still commonly used in Upstate New York, Michigan, and other areas to refer to hot dogs.1 In New York City, Coney Island hot dogs are topped with a meaty chili sauce and sometimes sauerkraut or onions. Chili dogs, often found at baseball stadiums, are hot dogs topped with meat chili.2 Corn dogs coat hot dogs with cornmeal batter before deep frying, creating a crispy outer layer.

There are also varieties of hot dogs to suit dietary restrictions or preferences. Veggie dogs and turkey dogs can be lower in fat and cholesterol for health-conscious consumers. Different brands produce hot dogs with customized recipes and ingredients, leading to many options for consumers.3

Hot dogs as an iconic American food

Hot dogs became popular ball game and picnic food by the early 1900s in America. Immigrants from Germany helped popularize hot dogs in the United States in the mid-1800s, selling them from carts in New York City. The portability, ease of eating while standing, and inexpensive cost made hot dogs an ideal food for sporting events and gatherings. Now, hot dogs are considered an iconic American food, with over 20 billion consumed annually in the US [1].

The hot dog and American culture

The hot dog has become an iconic part of American culture for over a century. Hot dogs feature prominently in movies, TV shows, comics, and other media as classic Americana (Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America). For example, hot dog stands and carts are often depicted in movies and TV shows set in New York City. Eating hot dogs at a baseball game is also portrayed as quintessentially American.

Competitive hot dog eating contests have become a popular spectacle, with the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest held every 4th of July drawing major media attention. The contest, first held in 1916, takes place on Coney Island and attracts thousands of spectators as participants compete to eat the most hot dogs in 10 minutes (Rowman & Littlefield).

There are also many songs and slogans devoted to the iconic status of hot dogs in American culture. For instance, hot dog-themed songs include “Pass the Mustard” by Dwight Yoakam and “Hot Dogs and Hooch” by Stoney LaRue. Slogans include “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” and “Hot dogs: The All American Food” (Rowman & Littlefield).

Unusual hot dog creations

Over the years, hot dog vendors and enthusiasts have come up with crazy innovations when it comes to hot dogs. From wild toppings to reinventing the entire format, people have created some truly unusual and sometimes unappetizing sounding hot dog dishes.

examples of crazy hot dog innovations

Some of the strange hot dog creations include pizza hot dogs, with tomato sauce, cheese and pepperoni baked right onto the wiener. Sushi hot dogs roll the wiener in rice and seaweed, similar to a sushi roll. Burrito hot dogs wrap the hot dog in a tortilla with beans, salsa, guacamole and more stuffed inside. There are also hot dog sandwiches, with the wiener served on bread or a bun like a traditional sandwich.

In terms of toppings and preparation methods, the sky’s the limit. Bacon-wrapped hot dogs are popular, encasing the wiener in crispy, salty, fatty bacon. Corndogs batter the hot dog and deep fry it on a stick for a new twist. And giant monumental hot dogs can span multiple feet in length, dwarfing the average ballpark frank.

While some of these creations might sound unappealing, people’s creativity and innovation when it comes to reinventing the humble hot dog seems endless. The classic American food has been the inspiration for some truly outrageous culinary concoctions over the years.

Conclusion

Hot dogs have a long, transforming history, dating back to German immigrants selling “dachshund sausages” in the 1800s (1). While the exact origin of the name “hot dog” is still debated, theories point to the popularity of the term arising in the early 1900s, especially at sports stadiums and public events. The many claims of inventing the hot dog name demonstrate its significance as an iconic American food (2). From Coney Island to ballparks across America, the humble hot dog has cemented its place in U.S. culture over the past 150 years. Its evolution from German street food to today’s endless variations of hot dog recipes and creations proves this sandwich’s versatility. The hot dog remains a classic American meal to this day.

(1) https://www.hot-dog.org/culture/hot-dog-history

(2) https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-hot-dog

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