The Englishman who invented an American fast-food icon

Everyone loves a hotdog don’t they? I know I used to eat a lot of them though I’ve not had any for about 20 years, partly that’s because it is hard to get gluten free hotdog bread rolls and partly as I prefer actual sausages in bread rolls. Nevertheless, hotdogs can be a fast and tasty way to banish hunger pans

Hotdogs though are credited as being invented by Harry M. Stevens from London though spent much of his childhood in the city of Derby. In 1871, aged 14, he was working as a puddler, an arduous and often dangerous occupation converting molten pig iron into wrought iron. Five years later he married Mary Wragg and in 1881 the couple were living at 21, Russell Street and Harry had changed jobs and worked as a potato vendor.

Around 1882 the family emigrated to the USA, settling in Niles, Ohio where Harry found work as a smelter in a local steelworks. But when a strike closed the works, he was forced to find alternative employment. Among the many jobs he undertook took to make ends meet was the one that would take him all over the north-eastern United States and would eventually lead him to New York.

Harry M Stevens

He became a travelling bookseller. From the Complete Works of Shakespeare, through the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant to a biography of General Custer, Harry Stevens walked from door-to-door peddling the latest page-turners. But, as good a salesman as Harry was, this was never going to set him on the road to a fortune. It was while taking time out from a heavy day’s selling to watch some sport that Harry came upon an idea that would.

Much like myself, Harry was an Englishmen who had fallen in love with baseball but the complex scorecards sold to spectators frustrated him. He decided he could do better and created a simple-to-follow version that made it easy for spectators to identify each player. It proved so popular that it became the model for the scorecards that, to this day, are sold in ballparks right across the USA.

Harry began to sell his idea to more and more ballparks, eventually acquiring the rights for scorecard and refreshment concessions at several Major League ballparks, including the famous Polo Grounds, variously home to the New York Yankees, Mets, and the NFL’s Giants.

It was here that Harry happened upon his second great idea. He noticed that some fans would become frustrated as they missed important moments of action on the field when taking a drink from their bottle. His idea is another that we still use today selling his bottles of soft drinks with drinking straws!

All of this though was just small fry compared to his third invention which is what really cemented Harry’s name in baseball history. Although his usual fare of hard-boiled eggs and ice creams were popular during the warmer months, Harry realised that what was really needed on those colder days at the start and end of the season was a hot snack. So he sent out his vendors to purchase as many of the local “dachshund” sausages as they could find.

They were immediately popular: tasty, warming and convenient, thanks to Harry’s unique selling point – serving them wrapped up in small bread rolls. They were a rip-roaring success, so much so that before long Harry’s carts were set up on street corners across New York. Others sought to copy him and soon local versions of the snack where being sold right across the nation.

All manner of local names were given to them from “frankfurters” to “red hots”, “wieners” to “wurst”, but for the origin of the “hotdog” we have to go back to Harry Stevens and his “dachshunds”. Looking for something quirky to illustrate a day at the ballpark, Tad Dorgan, cartoonist for the New York Sun, was inspired to draw a cartoon of a dachshund dog smeared in mustard and wrapped in a bun. Whether he was simply unable to spell “dachshund” or judged it too long a word, Dorgan’s caption read simply: “Get your hot dogs here!” Thus an American icon was named.

Because he had a knack of recognising what each crowd wanted at which time of year, Stevens’ empire grew quickly. Harry told one reporter: “Baseball crowds are great consumers of hot dogs, peanuts and bottled drinks. Heavier food is popular at racetracks. Prizefight crowds go in for mineral waters, near-beer (low-alcohol beer) and hot dogs. A boxing crowd is also a great cigar-consuming crowd. Chocolate goes well in spring and fall, but the hot dog is the all-year-round best seller.”

His knack paid off. When he died in 1934, Harry Stevens was a millionaire and then some. His family business became an enormous catering empire and “Harry M. Stevens” was one of the most recognisable names at American sporting venues. He even featured on his own cigarette card. He had offices at three of New York’s biggest sporting venues, and a suite at the Waldorf Hotel. His life ended in an apartment at the Murray Hill Hotel. His funeral was a star-studded affair – it was reckoned that some 500 major sporting stars were in attendance.

Some years after his death an auction of his memorabilia were held. Among the items was a photograph of Babe Ruth, the greatest baseball player of all time. Written in the Babe’s own hand was a simple, heartfelt, message: “To my second dad, Harry M. Stevens. From Babe Ruth. December 25 1927.”

Harry M. Stevens as depicted on a cigarette card (remember those!!)

Harry Stevens may have rubbed shoulders with the great and the good, but he kept in contact with his old hometown and made several trips back to Derby, putting his newfound American wealth to good use. In May 1928, Thomas Coleman of Litchurch Wesleyan Chapel told revellers at the chapel’s Sunday School Anniversary: “Harry M. Stevens of New York still retains great interest in the work at Litchurch, and yearly sends a gift of £15 to help on the work in the Sunday School.”

Meanwhile, he made a sizable donation to help construct a new Wesleyan chapel on Davenport Road. During the Second World War, his surviving family made a donation to the British Red Cross to purchase an ambulance in Harry’s name.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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2 Responses to The Englishman who invented an American fast-food icon

  1. Reblogged this on silverapplequeen and commented:
    I LOVE hotdogs, especially here in Buffalo, NY, where we have a variety of great local hotdogs to choose from … Sahlen’s, Wardynski’s, Frey’s, Redlinski’s, just to name a few. Up the road in Rochester, they have Zweigle’s, which is sold here in Buffalo at some of our supermarkets.

    On Labor Day, a perfectly grilled dog with chopped onions & Weber’s mustard is a MUST. With some potato salad & a pickle on the side. YUM!


  2. Pingback: The Englishman who invented an American fast-food icon – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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