United States of Hot Dogs is a recurring feature exploring the historic origins and modern appeal of America’s regional hot dogs.
Regional hot dogs have their loyalists who love to plant their flags in foreign parts. Take, for example, Lola’s Coney Island, a Detroit-style hot dog stand in Chicago. Or Hot Dog Heaven, whose bright yellow Vienna sign glowed like a beacon for a homesick Chicagoan trapped in the eternal summer of Ft. Lauderdale. You can buy packaged Nathan’s or Sabretts in supermarkets all across the country and then follow the online instructions to cook them at home—although even Nathan’s acknowledges that something may be lost without a dual-temperature, industrial flat top grill.
But there is only one hot dog that truly belongs to everyone in America: the Oscar Mayer wiener. Don’t pretend you don’t know the song. Or that you’ve never seen the Wienermobile. (Or that you weren’t totally excited to see the Wienermobile.) Unlike other hot dogs, which mark someone as a native of someplace in particular, or at the very least, a connoisseur of regional hot dog styles, the Oscar Mayer wiener itself is completely forgettable. It’s fine. You can eat it however you want. You can even put ketchup on it, and no one will care. But what you most remember about the Oscar Mayer wiener is the advertising. Truly, what is more American than that?
There really was an Oscar Mayer. Actually, there were three Oscar Mayers. The original, Oscar F., immigrated to the United States from Kaesingen, Wurttemburg, Germany, in 1873, when he was 14 years old. First he lived in Detroit, where he worked in a meat market, and then, three years later, he moved to Chicago, where he apprenticed as a buyer in the Armour & Co. stockyards (yes, the model for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Then he realized it was his destiny not to be a buyer, but a seller. He convinced his brother Gottfried, a sausage-maker, to come to Chicago, and in 1883, they leased a failing meat market on the city’s North Side, not too far from what’s now Takeout world headquarters. Oscar F. Mayer & Bro. distinguished themselves both with their sausage (Gottfried kept the recipe in a little black book) and by delivering all over the city and suburbs in horse-drawn wagons. Five years later, they borrowed $10,000 and bought their own building.
From the beginning, Oscar Mayer had a knack for marketing. He sponsored polka bands in Chicago and a booth at the 1893 World’s Fair. Around the turn of the century, he began selling his meat under the brand name Edelweiss; as we know from the song in The Sound of Music, it’s an alpine flower that’s clean and white. The name appeared on all the packaging and delivery wagons. After Congress passed the Pure Food And Drug Act in 1906, Mayer added a small purple stamp to all his packages that read, “U.S. Inspected And Passed.” Which, naturally, implied that meat from other companies, well, maybe was not.
In 1915, Mayer began buying elaborate newspaper display ads that emphasized the purity of his sausage and his commitment to quality—and that his product was available to out-of-town dealers. When the U.S. joined in World War I, Mayer had a government contract to supply the Army with meat. He also dropped the Edelweiss branding in the face of anti-German sentiment, and his middle initial from the company name because his son, Oscar G., had joined the family business after graduating from Harvard. It was Oscar G. who, in 1919, bought the giant packing plant outside Madison, Wisconsin, where the company would invent all sorts of novel ways to encase meat in plastic to convince the public that it was fresh. In 1929, the Mayers began to put little yellow bands on their sausages which, as historian Bruce Kraig points out in his book Hot Dog: A Global History, “was a brilliant way to single out Oscar Mayer wieners as top quality because they seemed to be handmade with special care.”
And then there was the Wienermobile. The giant hot dog on wheels was dreamed up in 1936 by the company’s ad manager Carl Mayer, nephew of Oscar F., in an attempt to appeal to children who, presumably, would nag their parents to buy them Oscar Mayer wieners and remain loyal customers for life. In his memoir Dog Days: A Year in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Dave Ihlenfeld writes that Carl originally considered a Wienercopter and a Wienerscooter before settling on the Wienermobile as a nod to the company’s earlier delivery wagons. Originally the Wienermobile was driven by a tiny chef named Little Oscar, who gave away free samples and plastic toys. Kraig believes Little Oscar was inspired by the dwarves of German folklore, but he was also short enough for children to look at him in the eye, which is appealing if you’re small. (Little Oscar was played by a series of little people, the first of whom, Meinhardt Raabe, went on to play the coroner in The Wizard of Oz.) Today, Wienermobiles are driven around the country by “hotdoggers,” teams of cheerful recent college graduates who relish making wiener puns.
Part of the hotdogger audition, Ihlenfeld writes, is singing the Oscar Mayer wiener song. Once you get it in your head, you will never get it out. (Believe me, I’ve been trying all day.) It was composed in a single hour on a September night in 1962 by Richard Trentlage, a Chicago ad man who had just learned that Oscar Mayer was holding a contest for a new jingle and that the deadline was the next day. Trentlage told the Wisconsin State Journal many years later that he was inspired by his son, David, who had been talking about how he wanted to be a “dirt bike hot dog” like one of his friends. Trentlage made a recording of his children singing the jingle—his daughter, Linda, had a cold—and submitted it the next day. Oscar G. was enchanted, and Trentlage collected residuals for the rest of his life for what Kraig has called “an ode to cannibalism.” (And you know, he’s not wrong.)
After all that, the taste of the hot dog itself is really beside the point. Kraig theorizes that the company kept the sausage deliberately bland to appeal to children, and that’s entirely plausible. When I think of Oscar Mayer, I think of clean, brightly lit supermarkets. I think of a hot dog boiled on the stove and cut into bite-sized pieces. I also think of the kitchen of the house my family lived in when I was small, and the plastic plates from McDonald’s that my sister and I always ate off of because our mother didn’t trust us with real dishes. And if I see an Oscar Mayer hot dog in the store now, I will probably buy it, not just out of nostalgia but because something in the back of my head says, “This isn’t as bad for you as other hot dogs.” I know it’s not true, but a lifetime of internalized propaganda is hard to shake off.