Hot dog. This all-American food term has long been shrouded in mystery, with many competing theories for its origin. But new research points to intriguing early evidence from an unexpected source, in the city of Paterson in New Jersey. Most intriguing of all, the original "hot dog man" may have been a Jamaican-born, German-speaking former circus strong man who plied his wares in Paterson in the late nineteenth century.
Three years ago, I wrote a Word Routes column looking at the history of hot dog as it was known at the time. I debunked one of the more popular origin stories, which has the cartoonist Thomas Aloysius "TAD" Dorgan coining the expression while drawing a cartoon at a 1901 baseball game at the Polo Grounds. There's no evidence that TAD did any such thing, and in any case, hot dog was already circulating in the Northeast in the 1890s.
How hot dog first caught on has attracted a sizable amount of attention from assiduous word historians such as David Shulman, Barry Popik, and Gerald Cohen, who have documented the popularity of the term among college students at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and other schools in the 1890s. (Students of the time were apparently taken with the humorous urban legend that frankfurter sausages actually consisted of dog meat.) Popik and Cohen even generated a 300-page monograph on the subject, and Popik maintains a webpage with the latest findings.
Thanks to the digitization of regional newspapers, the early history of hot dog has become even more complex. For a while, the earliest known example came from the Sep. 28, 1893 edition of the Knoxville (Tenn.) Journal. Then this was pushed back a bit further to the May 20, 1893 New Brunswick (NJ) Daily Times, in an article about how the shore town of Asbury Park had passed an ordinance cracking down on "'hot dog' peddlers."
Now there's a new date to beat: December 31, 1892. On that day, as Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro recently discovered, the Paterson (NJ) Daily Press printed an article about night-time ice-skating on the Passaic River, including this tidbit:
Somehow or other a frankfurter and a roll seem to go right to the spot where the void is felt the most. The small boy has got on such familiar terms with this sort of lunch that he now refers to it as "hot dog." "Hey, Mister, give me a hot dog quick," was the startling order that a rosy-cheeked gamin hurled at the man as a Press reporter stood close by last night. The "hot dog" was quickly inserted in a gash in a roll, a dash of mustard also splashed on to the "dog" with a piece of flat whittled stick, and the order was fulfilled.
So who was supplying the hot dogs to the young Patersonian ice-skaters? That goes unmentioned in the article, but other issues of the Daily Press (now available for searching on Google News Archive) reveal that one man in particular was associated with the selling of hot dogs in the 1890s: Thomas Francis Xavier Morris — known locally, according to his 1907 obituary, as "Hot Dog" or "Pepper Sauce" Morris. ("Besides peddling hot frankfurters," the obituary explained, Morris "made a pepper sauce that he supplied to many families the condiment being much sought after.")
Morris's life story is a remarkable one. I tracked him down in the 1900 Paterson census, which lists him as born in Jamaica in September 1838. (An 1884 article on Morris also says he was from Jamaica, though his obituary has him born on the island of Saint Thomas in the West Indies.) As a young man he lived in New York, and then traveled to Germany, where he made a living as a circus performer. He portrayed a "wild Zulu" in a sensational circus act in cities across Europe, and also took on the more traditional role of the strong man. Morris got married to a European woman he met while performing in Switzerland, and the two of them came to the United States in 1880. He worked as a hotel chef in New York before eventually settling in Paterson, then a booming manufacturing city.
Morris opened a restaurant in Paterson, but then "drifted into the frankfurter peddling business," according to his obituary. (The 1900 census lists his occupation as "Peddler, Frankfurter.") An 1886 article said of Morris, "As is well known he goes about the city supplying the saloons with Frankfort sausage, herring and rolls." But it was only later that his wares came to be known as "hot dogs" — Morris is identified as the city's "hot dog man" in articles in 1894 and 1897. (In the latter article, it was reported that Morris was "convicted of keeping a disorderly house," but he received a suspended sentence because of his "previous good character.")
The fascinating travails of "Hot Dog" Morris may hold the key to understanding how hot dog first came into circulation. Did Morris's time in Germany give him a special knack in the frankfurter department, and did he come up with the hot dog name himself? How might the term have spread elsewhere in New Jersey, to resort towns like Asbury Park and Atlantic City, before becoming known as a collegiate favorite? There's still much more research to be done. I'll report back with more discoveries from the early days of hot dog as the story unfolds. In the meantime, give a thought to Mr. Morris as you slather mustard on your next dog.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer