A Brief History of the Hamburger

Whether the word hamburger elicits images of corporate America or memories and fantasies of fragrant meat sizzling on the grill, one thing is for sure, the hamburger is a foodstuff that has a long and storied history worth exploring. Purely an American invention, the name always brings to mind imagery of a patty of ground meat between two buns. Nowadays hamburgers are piled high with delightful toppings that range from simple lettuce, onions, ketchup, and mustard, to gourmet concoctions of epic proportions.


Ground(beef) Breaking History

Ground beef/meat has been used in a variety of cultures as a meal though it was never served on a bun as the hamburger is today. There are several stories of ground meat being turned into sausage, on toast, or in the uncooked form of tartar popularized by Russians who immigrated into Germany. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the “Hamburg Steak” became a popular menu item in America and even then it was not served on a bun.

Meat grinders in the early 19th century weren’t easy to get a hold of by the general public. Much like infrared cooking wasn’t commercially available or affordable until our Infrared Sizzle Zone, hamburger meat wasn’t easy to produce, and required intense physical labor. Anyone wishing to serve a Hamburg Steak had to first use chisel-like tools to chop the meat. 1845 saw numerous grinders available on the market making it easy to produce ground beef more akin to what we know today. This also paved the way for other popular ground meat dishes like hotdogs and meatloaf.



Through the magic of the English language, the Hamburg Steak was morphed into the shortened term Hamburger, then into the simpler form of “burger”, which is now preceded by the prefix to indicate what kind of burger it is cheeseburger, baconburger, mooseburger etc.


Fastest Food

The invention of the Burger as we know it today came at a time where urban centers were really growing and fast/cheap food was needed to feed masses – taking place between the end of WWI and the Great Depression. For all intents and purposes, the hamburger was ideal because it was inexpensive to produce. However, corruption and poor hygiene practices led people to believe that, although fast, inexpensive, and convenient – especially in the Depression – burgers were not safe food to eat. The first “fast food” chain was actually White Castle around 1926. their goal was to standardize the Hamburger, make them hygienically and rapidly so that customers could get them on demand. The success of this was largely due to positive press when the franchise began advertising in local papers (the first restaurant to do so). McDonald’s saw its beginnings in 1937, however, it wasn’t until 1940 that the business became popular, spreading across the west coast. The hamburger’s globalization occurred thanks to fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s.



The First Patties

By the late 19th century America had become one of the largest cattle producers in the world, meaning that they were also consuming copious amounts of beef as well.

There are three popular stories about the first Hamburger, as we know it.

  1. 1871 saw Charlie Nagreen sell Hamburger Steaks at a fair in Outagamie. Patrons wanted to move about, not be stuck eating at the booth so Charlie flattened the patty and served it between a couple of slices of bread.
  2. “Old Dave” Fletcher Davis is credited to have served his Hamburg Steak on Texas toast when a customer was too busy to stay and eat in his restaurant in 1880. This version became a popular carry-out meal.
  3. The most popular story is that the Lassen family created the Hamburger Sandwich for a restaurant called Louis’ Lunch. These sandwiches were flattened patties of hamburger steak flame broiled and served on bread.


Recent History

As noted in our article about the history of food on the 4th of July; the advent of the personal home grill played a huge role in bringing the hamburger into the home as families were now able to produce fan-favorite foods there. In the latter half of the 20th century, a push towards eating healthy and how fast food was causing obesity was seen. This lead to more people eating at home where they, conveniently, had a grill to cook with.

More recently, however, there’s been a push for organic, and gourmet, leading to the hamburgers that we are seeing today featuring fusion cuisine, intense flavors, and unconventional combinations. What’s your burger story? Tell us about the hamburgers in your life whether it’s about an amazing burger, a BBQ disaster (or win), your own recipe, or even an event that featured burgers on the grill. Share on our social pages like Facebook and Instagram using the hashtags #BurgerHistory and #NapoleonGrill.