The history of the hamburger is not a clear one. Some say that the concept of eating meat between two slices of bread originated hundreds of years ago with the quests of Genghis Khan around the year 1206 during his rise to power. However, the modern definition of a hamburger – ground beef served in a bun with your choice of toppings – wouldn’t come around until the 18th and 19th centuries.
The late 18th century saw a sharp rise in immigration as travel across the Atlantic Ocean became more accessible. During this time, Germany had some of the largest ports in Europe, so many German sailors and immigrants ended up in the New York harbor. Food stands advertised “steak cooked in the Hamburg style,” which included shredded beef seasoned with regional spices molded into a patty. These would often be served between two slices of bread for ease of distribution and consumption. Several recipes for Hamburg Steak and similar variations can be found in cookbooks dating back to 1758.
The “Invention” of the American Hamburger
Several people claim to have invented the modern American burger: Charlie Nagreen (Seymour, Wisconsin), Frank and Charles Menches (Akron, Ohio), and Oscar Weber Bilby (Tulsa, Oklahoma).
Charlie began selling burgers from a food stand in 1885 at the Outagamie County Fair. Originally, he sold homemade meatballs, but upon seeing that they were difficult to eat while walking around, he flattened the meatballs into patties and served them between two slices of bread. Reportedly, he called his invention “the hamburger.” He would continue to sell them every year at the fair until his death in 1951.
Frank and Charles Menches
Brothers Frank and Charles also claim to be the inventors of the modern-day burger in 1885. They both worked for a traveling concession circuit for events around the country, and while stopped in Hamburg, New York, they ran out of pork sausage for their sandwiches. After a butcher suggested they substitute in beef, they served the seasoned ground meat between two slices of bread and called it a “hamburger” after the city they were in.
Oscar Weber Bilby
Oscar Bilby was the first person to serve a hamburger on a bun on his farm in Oklahoma in 1891. He is often credited as the inventor of the hamburger as we know it: seasoned ground beef served on a bun with toppings. Oscar and his son Leo would go on to open a hamburger stand in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and would sell their invention there for several years.
The 1904 World’s Fair
The modern American burger gained widespread attention at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. A vendor, often believed to be restaurant owner Fletch Davis, served grilled hamburger steak on slices of toasted bread. His meal was written about by a reporter for the New York Tribune, and the publication received widespread attention.
Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”
The use of ground meat steadily grew in popularity until 1906 with the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This impressionistic fiction novel spoke of the unhygienic and overall terrible conditions of Chicago meat packing plants. While the purpose of the novel was to depict the terrible working conditions many immigrants faced in order to make ends meet, the public was more disgusted with the unsanitary facilities and cruel treatment of the animals that were slaughtered. This caused a mass distrust of packing facilities for several years, dropping the consumption of ground meat drastically for several years.
The Oldest Hamburger Chain
1921 saw the creation of White Castle, the nation’s oldest hamburger chain. A burger and fries were sold for a nickel, and the popularity of the meal would continue to grow.
Burgers at Barleycorn’s
If reading about the history of the modern American burger has made you hungry, stop by Barleycorn’s and order one of our mouth-watering favorites! We have three locations throughout Northern Kentucky, so stop in and grab a burger today.