How many times have you had a hamburger in the last month? How many hamburger joints do you pass during your commute? The answer to either question is probably at least a handful. The hamburger is one of the most popular American foods, right up there with hot dogs, root beer floats, and fried chicken.

Since the hamburger gained its fame, preparation of this delicious meal in a bun has evolved into a near art form, while custom hamburger counters have popped up in cities and suburbs all across the country. A seeming infinite number of variations and recipes are still being born in kitchens and restaurants across the nation.

Of course the classic hamburger is always a hit, but you can also enjoy the Hawaiian burger, the BBQ burger, the mushroom swiss burger, the BLT burger… the list goes on and on and on. And don’t forget the variations on meat. Hamburgers are so popular we do our best to transform other meats into burger form as well. Just look at the salmon burger, the turkey burger, the veggie burger.

Where Did the Hamburger Come From?

No doubt the hamburger in any form, is a staple of the American diet. But the origins of the hamburger are a bit unclear. No one knows for sure where and when the hamburger first got its start. All we do know is that it’s here to stay.

There is one credible theory about its early beginnings starting in Hamburg, Germany. Supposedly German butchers had learned from Russian butchers to chop up cheaper cuts of beef and cook it in a compressed chunk similar to salisbury steak. Then, according to legend, German emigrants brought the “Hamburg Steak” to America around the end of the 18th century where it quickly became a mainstream dish in areas where Germans settled.

So how did the buns come into the picture? Again, the exact source is unclear, but many people believe that the hamburger first started being served between two slices of bread in 1847 on the Hamburg America Line (a transatlantic shipping company out of Hamburg, Germany). From there it gained popularity and spread throughout the country.

Of course there are other theories too. One theory claims the hamburger was first featured in Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” cookbook in 1758 as a recipe called “Hamburg Sausage” served with a hunk of toasted bread underneath.

Other theories are similar. Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas opened up a lunch counter in the 1880’s that served a burger of fried ground beef, topped with bermuda onion, mustard, and two slices of bread.

Charlie Nagreen sold a “meatball” on two slices of bread at the Seymour Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin in 1885. He is known in local history books as “Hamburger Charlie”.

And, there is the 1896 Chicago Daily Tribune reference to a hamburger sold at a sandwich car for only five cents. Though it was called a “hamburger steak sandwich” then.

Perhaps all of these theories are true, there’s no reason to doubt that different people could be figuring out that putting beef between two slices of bread is really tasty, all at the same time.

However, most people agree that the hamburger really became famous on a national level at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. According to the New York Tribune, hamburgers were being sold by food vendors at the fair. Since that time, hamburger stands and counters began popping up all over

Despite its growing popularity, there was also growing skepticism about the quality of the meat around this time. Everything changed for the hamburger soon thereafter, however.

In 1916, a short order cook named J. Walter Anderson created the first hamburger bun to replace the traditional two slices of bread to hold the meat. Later, in 1921 this same fellow and a man named Billy Ingram opened a White Castle hamburger joint in Kansas.

The restaurant opened their kitchen to their customers so that they could see the hamburger meat being prepared. Customers could see for themselves, the quality and freshness of the meat. White Castle became the very first major hamburger chain, soon to be followed by a line of others hoping to get in on the action. Since then, an explosion of burger mania has hit the U.S. with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

In the 1940’s In-N-Out Burger became the first drive-thru restaurant, and it happened to be a burger joint too. In-N-Out is still an iconic symbol big in California culture. Then in the 1950’s the fast food craze was born with McDonald’s and Burger King. The McDonald’s brand threw the American hamburger into international fame.

The Evolution of the Hamburger

Other establishments have done much for the evolution of the burger, showing just how versatile this basic food item can be. In 1937 Bob’s Big Boy owner made a “double decker” by stacking two hamburger patties. And somewhere in that time frame someone suggested putting cheese on burgers Hence, the cheeseburger was born.

In 1963, Dale Mulder put bacon on his burgers sold at the A&W drive in burger shack. Then, in 1967 the Big Mac was born by an increasingly popular McDonald’s food chain. Two years later Kentucky Fried Chicken famed chef, Dave Thomas founded Wendy’s fast food restaurant, specializing in high quality, never frozen hamburger patties.

With a well established fast food hamburger market that has persisted to this day, we have turned to gourmet hamburgers as our next major obsession. Most American style sit-down, dine-in restaurants feature at least three different types of burgers on their menus. We now have burger joints dedicated to the artisan burger, where an overwhelming selection of burgers in all tastes and sizes are on the menu. And, if that wasn’t enough, we have build-your-own-burger bars that put the power of gourmet firmly into the customer’s hands.

So, while it’s hard to know just where the hamburger got its start, one thing is for sure… The hamburger is as American as apple pie, or PB&J, or the chili dog, or… well you get the point.