Searching History For The Hot Dog's Origin

Jul 4, 2011

On Monday, New York's Coney Island will host Nathan's Famous annual hot dog eating contest. The contest is in its 96th year.

But, the origin of the popular summer food is still cloudy.

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the online magazine Visual Thesaurus, says there are a lot of myths about the name 'hot dog.' One is about a New York Evening Journal cartoonist, Tad Dorgan.

"Around 1901, Tad Dorgan was at the polo grounds in Upper Manhattan; it's where New York's baseball giants used to play. He was at the ball game [and] one of the concessionaires was selling red-hots, these frankfurter sandwiches, and he had the idea to make a cartoon with a dachshund in a roll, and so he drew this picture for this cartoon," he tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.

But, Zimmer says, Dorgan didn't know how to spell 'dachshund,' so he wrote 'hotdog' instead.

"This has been a very sturdy myth, even though there is not a bit of truth to this story," Zimmer says.

Recent research has revealed a different possibility. Yale Law librarian Fred Shapiro has found evidence of hot dogs in Patterson, N.J. as early as 1892. Zimmer says that story starts with a frankfurter vendor named Thomas Francis Xavier Morris — also known as 'Hot Dog Morris.'

"He had this remarkable life, going around Europe as a strongman before marrying a European woman, coming to the United States and eventually settling in Patterson. He opened a restaurant and then started selling his frankfurters," he says.

As with some words in the English language, pinpointing the origin of a phrase is difficult, but Zimmer says he has faith in 'Hot Dog Morris.'

"He was the innovator in calling it a hot dog and marketing it that way. There are other early reports of hot dogs being sold in the shore towns of New Jersey, like Asbury Park and Atlantic City, so it could be a New Jersey origin," he says.

For now, the origin of the hot dog's name remains a mystery.

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