Published September 2, 2012
By Jerry Tranovich
We may never know the actual inventor of the hamburger. Most historians believe that it was simply invented by a cook who placed a ground beef steak between two slices of bread. Who the first was to get this idea is difficult to say, because there is no written record, only folklore, verbal descriptions and direct statements to the press, to support various claims of it's origin.
But we do have a time frame. All claims to the delicious invention occurred between 1885 and 1904. With all of the different stories about the beginning of the hamburger, some details remain consistent - amusement parks, fairs, and festivals. In addition, they all reference street vendors.
The most popular of the stories are:
Story 1. - Charlie Nagreen, of Wisconsin, sold Hamburg steaks from a street stall at the annual Outagamie County Fair when he was just 15 years old. Real success came the following year, 1885, when he sold his product between 2 slices of bread. People loved it because they could easily eat it while moving about the fair. The "Hamburger Charlie", as it was known, was sold at the festival until he died in 1951. An annual "Burger Fest" to honor his accomplishment is still held in his hometown of Seymour, Wisconsin.
Story 2. - Fletcher Davis claimed to have had the idea of putting ground beef between bread near the end of the 1880's in Athens, Texas. Fletcher and his wife had a stand at the World's Fair of 1904, in St. Louis. A Texas journalist documented that a salesman named Fletcher Davis served hamburgers in a café at 115 Tyler Street in Athens, late 1880's. Also, the locals claim that Davis was selling beef sandwiches during that time, but didn't have a clear name for his product.
Story 3. - Two brothers from Akron, Ohio, in the year 1885, (same year that Charlie Nagreen claimed to have developed his "Hamburger Charlie"), Frank and Charles Menches claimed they sold a ground beef sandwich at the Erie County Fair. They said that the name, "hamburger" is derived from the town Hamburg, New York in Erie County, the first place where they sold it. Their original recipe that includes coffee and brown sugar is still used at Menches Brothers restaurant in Akron.
Story 4 - Otto Kuasw, a German cook, created a very popular sailors' sandwich, the "Deutsches Beefsteak" (German Beefsteak), made of a fillet of beef patty fried in butter, served with a fried egg, between two toasted buns in 1891, at a post in Hamburg, Germany. Sailors traveling between Hamburg and New York, often requested this "Hamburg style" sandwich at New York restaurants.
Story 5 - Louis' Lunch, New Haven, Connecticut, has been selling Steak and Hamburger since 1895 when Louis Lassen first opened his lunch wagon. This small establishment, which advertises itself as the oldest hamburger restaurant in the U.S., is credited by some to be the original inventors of the clasic American hamburger when in the year 1900, Louis sandwiched a patty between two pieces of white toast for a busy office worker. Still open today, (operated by Great-grandson Jeff Lassen), they flame broil the hamburgers in the original 1898 vertical cast iron gas stoves. If we are going by official documentation, The United States Library of Congress American Folklife Center Local Legacies Project website, (whew, can't get much more official than that!), credits Louis' Lunch as the maker of America's first hamburger and steak sandwich.