Move over hamburger history, it’s time to talk about New Haven and hot dogs.
For a long time, New Haven has proudly proclaimed itself the birthplace of the hamburger. However, last January this column raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the claim that Louis’ Lunch served the first hamburger sandwich at the turn of the century. Soon afterward, a dedicated reader directed us to a newspaper account with definitive proof of hamburgers being served outside of Connecticut several years prior.
But fans of unhealthy meats and Connecticut history shouldn’t despair. It appears New Haven played an important early role in hot dog history, or at least in the etymology of the famous food.
Hot dogs are sausages, which have been eaten for thousands of years. In the late 18th and early 19th century, German immigrants brought their love of sausages to the U.S. Two varieties — wieners (Vienna sausages) and frankfurters (franks) — ultimately were dubbed “hot dogs.”
Though the first time the term “hot dog” was used is unclear, a famous early use comes from Yale University magazines in 1895. “Lexicographer David Shulman thought there was a connection between hot dog as a sharp dresser or good athlete, or show-off (still one use of the phrase) and sausages sold by lunch wagons,” writes historian Bruce Kraig in Hot Dog: A Global History. “This was later demonstrated by Barry Popik using Yale University college magazines from 1895. In them a new lunch wagon called ‘The Kennel Club’ appears (the name also applies to a well-known Yale clothier) giving rise to the phrase ‘Dog Wagon,’ followed closely by ‘hot dog.’ ”
Several earlier references to hot dogs can be found. The earliest Kraig is aware of is a mention in the Paterson Daily Press of New Jersey from Dec. 31, 1892. But even though the term wasn’t coined in New Haven, “Billy the Dog Man,” who owned “The Kennel Club” dog wagon in New Haven, seems to have helped popularize the term. Kraig, a professor emeritus in history at Roosevelt University in Chicago, writes that the term spread to Eastern colleges and “then seeped into popular culture.”
A well-read story published in The Sun in New York City in 1899 about New Haven hot dogs may have also contributed to the term’s rise in use. “Dog wagons are indigenous to New Haven and are the result of the appetites of Yale men who appreciate the fact that the hot wienerwursts snugly imbedded in rolls and covered in mustard are ready to bark at any time,” the article states, noting the pioneer of these famous dog wagons was “Billy the Dog Man.”
The association of this type of sausage with dogs grew out of a longstanding joke that the inexpensive and often-hard-to-recognize meat in sausages came from dogs. “It’s a sardonic sense of humor,” Kraig says.
Though the joke likely appealed to young Yale students, the linkage of sausages and dog meat predates the emergence of dog wagons in New Haven by many decades. “This goes back to the 1840s, at least,” Kraig says. In 1864, Septimus Winner, a noted songwriter of the era, released a song set to a traditional German folk tune known popularly as “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” The highly tongue-in-cheek song is sung in an exaggerated German accent and written from the perspective of a mournful dog owner whose dog has been put through the sausage machine of a local butcher.
Of course, German immigrants didn’t use dog meat in their sausage, and the joke, at least initially, was inspired by nativism and mistrust of immigrants, Kraig says. Eventually, however, it seems that hot dog purveyors such as Billy chose to own the joke by referring to their product as hot dogs. As the 1899 article in The Sun notes, the wagon owners were not offended by the joke that their sausages contained dog meat: “Billy has met the college element more than half way by inscribing on his wagons the following sign: YALE KENNEL CLUB LUNCH WAGON.”