Before FDR helped the hot dog become a Fourth of July favorite, it was an outcast associated with squalor, crime, and moonshine
Franklin Delano Roosevelt eats a hot dog as Canadian politician Allison Dysart looks on. 1936. Library of Congress
On the evening of October 20, 1909, 600 millionaires—"pork princes," The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called them—gathered at Chicago's La Salle Hotel for the annual banquet of the American Meat Packers' Association. "Bratwurst, bockwurst, wienerwurst," they chanted, shouting a kind of pump-up song. "Leberwurst, blutwurst, bologna, hot dog."
"Hot dog" came last. According to the Post-Dispatch, J. Ogden Armour, one of America's biggest meat tycoons, proceeded to "deliver a defense of the sausage family, showing he believed what he said by eating (actual count) seven 'hot dogs,' the most abused member of the family."
Why should the hot dog—a food so entrenched in American culture that more than 150 million of them will be consumed this Independence Day, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council—have needed such defending, and to a roomful of the men who should have been its most loyal allies? One compelling answer: Until the 1930s, when our hot-dog-lover-in-chief, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gave hot dogs a much-needed boost, many Americans hated them.
Newspaper articles from the early 1900s often make hot dogs, despite their widespread consumption at the time, seem like the lowest of the low. These were not plump Ball Park Franks you might squirt with primary-colored condiments and give to your five-year-old. They were gritty symbols of booze, drug dealers, and adulterated food. "SECRET OF HOT DOG IS EXPOSED," said one 1921 Los Angeles Times story about a novel alcohol-smuggling technique, adding, "Innocent-Looking Sandwich Found to Contain Moonshine." The connection between hot dogs and liquor was particularly strong. As a 1929 New York Times article put it, "For every frankfurter sold by a delicatessen in the ante-Volstead days, three had been speared and consumed by patrons of the saloon." Even the tendency of reporters to bracket the term with quotation marks—"hot dogs"—gave the whole topic an air of shadiness and skepticism.
The same Times story reported on the efforts of a suburban town to prevent a hot dog vendor from setting up shop near a high school, saying, "This attempt to remove the frankfurter from scholastic circulation was not the first time that its status had been impugned." In rich communities like Scarsdale, New York, and Evanston, Illinois, hot dog sales were banned. As stands and carts proliferated along the country's motorways, plans emerged to do away with these "eyesores"—or beautify them. Hot dog advocates defended their wares from allegations that the products contained actual dog meat, launching campaigns to change the name to "franks," "red hots," and even "hot pig and cow." There were odder stories, too: A kitten gone berserk after eating a hot dog, or an especially weird New York Times piece, "Scorned a Throne, Now Faces Swahilis' Curse; Hot-Dog Man Gets Ominous Note From Africa."
And still, as the Times noted, "In virtually every instance in which its honor and dignity have been assailed, it has emerged victorious, with its position as the national snack materially strengthened." Then came FDR, whose hot dog passion the press documented with palpable fascination. A 1934 Atlanta Constitution article: "ROOSEVELT VISITS NEW GRANDCHILD; President Eats Roadside Hot Dogs En Route to Hyde Park Home." The Times, 1935: "'HOT DOGS' FOR PRESIDENT; He 'Just Loves' Them, Also Toasted Cheese, Wife Says." The Baltimore Sun, 1936: "Premier And President Eat Hot Dogs" (the moment captured in the photo at the top of this post). The biggest story came in 1939, when FDR made international news by serving hot dogs to England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. By then, the hot dog's reputation had improved enough that New York's exclusive Gourmet Society had "officially recognized" it, calling it better than the food at an average small-town hotel. The Hot Dog Dark Ages, it is safe to say, were over.
But the newspaper articles remain—windows into a time very different from our own. They not only reveal a lack of American hot dog acceptance but also speak to deeper fears and preoccupations of the early 20th century. So here are excerpts of 12 articles from the forgotten era of American hot dog consumption, when hot dogs weren't necessarily something we could be proud of. In each you'll find bits of controversy or paranoia—or moments that helped this culinary "mongrel" became a dog fit for the Fourth of July.