The history of the hamburger: An American invention

The burger is ingrained in American history. From its state-fair origins to today’s big-ticket numbers, sink your teeth into the history of the meaty sandwich.

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As with any icon, the history of the hamburger is a long and sordid tale, from the minced meat that Mongol horsemen gnawed on during conquests to the iconic patty’s much-contested state-fair beginnings. Like most American foods, the burger has immigrant roots—meaty prototypes sailed over from Germany in the mid–19th century. But it became the sandwich we know and love today through all-American innovation. Dig into the archives and brush up on your hamburger history.

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1200s  The earliest burger ancestor is invented (modern historians surmise) by Mongol horsemen, who stash raw meat under their saddles while wreaking havoc across Asia. Postride, the pounded meat is tender enough for the cavalry to eat raw.

1747  A hamburger prototype—called Hamburg sausage—crops up in the pages of Hannah Glasse’s English cookbook, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. The recipe calls for minced beef seasoned with suet, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, garlic, wine vinegar, bay salt, red wine and rum, smoked for a week in a chimney. 

1802  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Hamburg steak as a “hard slab of salted, minced beef, often slightly smoked, mixed with onions and bread crumbs.”

1829  The first documented patent for a mechanical meat cutter is granted to someone now known only as E. Wade. One G.A. Coffman of Virginia improves on Wade’s invention, receiving a patent 16 years later for his meat-grinding apparatus. 

1840s  Sailing on the Hamburg-America Line, German emigrants chow on minced, salted beefsteak, a recipe borrowed from the Russians. The dish becomes known as the Hamburg steak and later goes mainstream in the U.S.

1873  Delmonico’s in NYC advertises a Hamburg steak on its dinner menu—the first printed menu in America—for the then-princely price of ten cents.

1885  Running out of pork, Frank and Charles Menches make do by serving a ground-beef sandwich at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York. The brothers claim to have invented the hamburger, as does 15-year-old Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, who delivers a similar sammie at the Outagamie County Fair that same year.

1900  Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch in New Haven serves ground beef cooked on a vertical boiler and sandwiched between two slices of toast. A century later, the Library of Congress officially credits Louis’ Lunch for selling the first hamburger in the States.

1904  The hamburger makes its national debut at the St. Louis World’s Fair, thanks to a burger stand by Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas.

1916  A fry cook named Walter Anderson creates a short, squat bun specifically made for hamburgers. Five years later, Anderson cofounds White Castle, the world’s first burger chain.

1928  An early example of a cheeseburger turns up on the menu at O’Dells diner in Los Angeles, served with cheese and chili for 25 cents.

1935  The trademark for the word cheeseburger is awarded to Louis Ballast of the Humpty Dumpty Drive-In in Denver. However, good-guy Ballast never enforces his exclusivity rights, leading to widespread use of the term.

1940  Richard and Maurice McDonald open McDonald’s Bar-B-Que in San Bernardino, California. Eight years later, the brothers renovate the restaurant, refocusing the menu on their 15-cent hamburger.

1948  With the launch of In-N-Out in Baldwin Park, California, Harry and Esther Snyder open the first drive-through burger joint. In 1976, the Snyders’ son Rich takes over the family business. A devout Christian, Rich starts printing discreet references to Bible verses on the chain’s paper containers (e.g., John 3:16 shows up on the bottom of beverage cups and Revelation 3:20 on the crease of burger wrappers).

1950s  New York’s ‘21’ Club unveils the first “haute” burger, made with duck fat and fennel seeds. It costs $2.75 (today, it sells for $30). Fifty years later, Daniel Boulud introduces the $32 foie gras– and truffle-laced DB Burger to the menu at DB Bistro Moderne.

1968  The world gets a taste of McDonald’s newest creation, the Big Mac, sold for 49 cents.

1984  Wendy’s debuts its famous “Where’s the beef?” commercial, starring Clara Peller. The memorable catchphrase is borrowed by former Vice President Walter Mondale during that year’s presidential election.

1989  Seymour, Wisconsin’s Burger Fest serves the world’s largest hamburger, weighing a whopping 5,520 pounds (a record that still holds). A forklift is used to place cheese atop the behemoth patty, enjoyed by an estimated 13,000 diners.

1994  Quentin Tarantino releases the cult classic Pulp Fiction and John Travolta schools the world on the “Royale with cheese.”

2001  Burgers make up 71 percent of all beef served in commercial restaurants.

2004  Danny Meyer’s burger-stand superstar, Shake Shack, debuts in New York’s Madison Square Park.

2009  PETA offers Hamburg, New York, $15,000 worth of nonmeat patties to change the town’s name to Veggieburg. Hamburg declines.

2013  Maastricht University physiologist Mark Post debuts an “in vitro” burger, a five-ounce patty composed of synthetic meat grown in a Netherlands lab from cow stem cells. The test-tube burger is the world’s most expensive—not to mention the grossest-sounding—coming in at a cool £250,000 (about $385,000).


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