December 1, 2023

Who Invented the Hamburger?

Who invented the hamburger? There are many claimants, and no clear answer. We weigh the most likely contenders.

Hamburg, circa 1800
Hamburg, circa 1800

Hamburg is a medium sized port in the north of Germany, on the Elbe River.

The location makes the city open to outside influences. It is a busy trading centre, and close to eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

Somewhere in the mid 18th century, we are not sure precisely when, bustling Hamburg saw the arrival of a new culinary concept; diced beef steak, mixed with egg, onion and spices, formed into flattened disks and fried.

Traditional Hamburg Steaks, a standard German dish.
Traditional Hamburg Steaks, a standard German dish.

The dish may have arrived in Hamburg via English sailors, or Russian merchants may have been responsible.

Both countries had dishes that were similar, and had significant trade with Germany. But wherever the recipe originated, it quickly caught on in the city, and then spread to the rest of Germany.

Served with roast vegetables, or salad, the 'Hamburg Steak' quickly became established as a staple part of the German diet.

In the Victorian era, Germany exported the idea to the world.

As the 19th century unfolded, waves of immigrants fanned out from Europe, looking for fresh opportunity elsewhere. Many of these headed for America, then still establishing itself as a world power.

Hard working, diligent and socially conservative, German migrants settled in the United States in large numbers, and many of them prospered.

They brought their cultural traditions with them, and the Hamburg Steak had a beach head in a vast new market. The first recorded reference in America, is from the 1870s:

'A 'Hamburg Steak' is simply a beef-steak, redeemed from its original roughness by being mashed into mincemeat, and then formed into a conglomerated mass, and fried.'

- 'The New York Times', 1873

Cheap, easy to prepare, and tasty, the dish again proved popular. By the 1880s, Hamburg Steaks were well established on the east coast of America, and could be found on the menu of most diners and cafes.

But, something strange was happening to the name; it had somehow gone from 'Hamburg', to 'Hamburger':

'Those flat, brown, meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg Steaks; the people call them 'Hamburgers.' They are made from raw meat chopped up with onions, and spices, and are very good.'

- 'The New York Sun', 1883

No one really knows why, beyond people's natural inclination to play with words.

The hamburger pattie in America in the 1880 looked and tasted much like it does today. But it remained something that you sat down  to eat on a plate, with a knife and fork and a side salad.

Who was the innovator that turned it into a sandwich? Our first contender is Charlie Nagreen.

Who invented the hamburger: Charlie Nagreen
Charlie Nagreen, AKA 'Hamburger Charlie.'

Born into a poor family in Hortonville, Wisconsin in 1870, Nagreen left school at an early age, and set to making a living with a mobile lunch cart.

He used a small gas grill to heat and serve meatballs, and was undoubtedly familiar with Hamburg Steaks, as Wisconsin had a substantial German population.

In October 1885, Charlie used a team of oxen to drag his lunch cart 20 miles to the nearby town of Seymour, to do some business at their first annual town fair. While the fair was busy, and full of potential customers, there was a problem; everyone wanted a snack they could take with them while they wandered around, which didn't suit the meatballs Charlie was selling.

A statue of Charlie Nagreen, possible inventor of the hamburger
A statue erected to Charlie outside Seymour, Wisconsin.

The resourceful young entrepreneur hit on an ingenious solution.

He bought a few loaves of bread from a sandwich stand at the fair, flattened his meatballs into patties, and served them between two slices. His new creation proved so popular that Charlie soon made them his primary product, and sold them at fairs all across Wisconsin.

He became known as 'Hamburger Charlie.' So goes the legend for Nagreen as the inventor of the modern hamburger.

But while Hamburger Charlie was a real man, who ran a portable snack stand that sold hamburgers at county fairs for more than sixty years, this origin story outlined is almost certainly inaccurate.

While the claim is repeated on numerous websites, including Wikipedia, no tangible evidence is available to confirm that Charlie was even at the Seymour State Fair in 1885, let alone selling hamburgers there. Charlie may have been their inventor, or simply an early adopter.

Who invented the hamburger: The Mench brothers
The Mench Brothers portable snack stand

Frank and Robert Mench also operated a travelling snack stand, selling sliced pork sandwiches at fairs and public events.

In either 1885, or 1892 (different versions have different dates) the brothers set up shop at the county fair in Akon, Ohio, and would later claim to have invented the hamburger there.

Having run out of pork due to unexpectedly high demand, the brothers tried to source more meat from a local butcher. But the popularity of the fair meant that supplies were short, and all the Mench's could get their hands on was five pounds of ground beef.

They used this to prepare a batch of Hamburg Steaks, also well known by this time in Ohio. To serve them, they employed the remainder of their sandwich making supplies; bread, and salad, with a ground beef pattie in between.

But the problem with this origin story, plausible though it sounds, is the same as Hamburger Charlie; there is no evidence beyond the brother's claims that it ever happened.

The Mench's ran a mobile sandwich stand, that later became a bricks-and-mortar shop. But there are no newspaper reports of them serving hamburgers in 1885 or 1892, and no mention of them having invented hamburgers until much later.

As a footnote, in the modern era 'Mench Bros' is a small goods company, that specialises in frozen hamburger patties.

Who invented the hamburger: Uncle Fletcher Davis
Uncle Fletcher Davis; a Texan who claimed to have invented the hamburger.

Fletcher 'Old Dave' Davis ran a small diner on in the Texas city of Athens, just outside of Dallas.

Sometime between 1896 and 1900 (accounts vary), Davis came up with a version of the hamburger; a ground beef patty, served between two slices of thick, crusty bread called Texas Toast.

While Davis did not call his sandwich a 'hamburger', it was a popular and well known local lunch item, and several residents have left behind first hand accounts of eating it at his restaurant.

Davis' sandwich was so popular, in fact, that he was invited to the World's Fair in St Louis in 1904, where he cooked them in the food hall. The large audience at this event, and the favourable response the sandwich received, meant that many visitors took the idea back home with them.

Davis' efforts helped popularise hamburgers, across America.

But his role as their inventor is not likely. The problem with Old Dave's claim is a matter of timing; 1896, or 1900, or 1904, is too late a date for the invention of the modern hamburger. There are independent reports of its existence, prior to that.

Fletcher Davis' cafe in Athen, Texas. The home of the hamburger?
Fletcher Davis' cafe in Athens, Texas. The home of the hamburger?

In 1893, the Evening Gazette in Reno, Nevada, carried an article that made specific mention of 'hamburger steak sandwiches' that were sold in a local cafe.

And by the following year, the Los Angeles Times  had a description of the same thing being sold by street vendors in LA. The casual nature of both of these references indicates that hamburgers - hand held, between two pieces of bread - were already well known in both places by this time.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Who invented the hamburger? It is probably impossible to determine, and it may be that there is no one single person responsible, rather a series of progressions, over  period of time.


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