The History of the Burger
As early as the 19th century, ground beef had been formed into patties and served as a steak in Germany and Austria with onion gravy and caramelized onions. This dish had acquired the name of the Hamburg Steak in English speaking countries. But the creation of sandwich made with the ground meat patty was the result of industrious concession vendors seeking a way to capitalize on the need for creating food which could be held and carried by attendees at fairs and sporting events.
Charles Nagreen, of Seymour, Wisconsin, allegedly places squashed meatballs between two slices of bread at the Outgamie County Fair so that patrons can walk and chow-down at the same time. There is no documentation of this claim and sticklers for details would argue that his concession stand was selling a “meatball sandwich”, not an actual “hamburger” as we know it today.
Frank Menches of Canton, Ohio claims to have sold ground beef patty sandwiches at the Erie County Fair. This account is also undocumented and is subject to substantial doubt based on conflicting details in various accounts.
Oscar Weber Bilby of Tulsa, Oklahoma is said, by family members, to have served hamburger patties on a sourdough bun at the family’s farm and later at a family restaurant. This may well have been the first such sandwich served on a bun. However, the only accounts of this are by family members who said they consumed the sandwiches. There is no evidence that these sandwiches were served in public until years later.
Texas newspaper journalist and historian, Frank Tolbert, wrote that Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas, was making hamburger sandwiches as early as the late 1880’s at a restaurant in Athens, Texas, however, conflicting accounts state that Fletcher didn’t open his restaurant until sometime between 1894 and 1896. Fletcher later sold hamburger sandwiches at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut is said to have begun selling hamburger sandwiches consisting of a hamburger steak between two slices of toast..
Fletcher Davis “Uncle Fletch” (above), credited by historians with having served “hamburger sandwiches” at his restaurant in Athens, Texas as early as 1896, allegedly went to the St. Louis World’s Fair to peddle burgers in 1904. Whether the sandwiches sold at the World’s Fair by Fletcher Davis were on sliced bread or a bun is unclear. The fad-like popularity of the handheld “burger” and its rapid addition to menus throughout the United States are said to have been the direct result of the sandwich’s popularity at the 1904 World’s Fair.