The classic hamburger was under no uncertain terms created in the United States. But who actually is responsible for this creation and when it was first served remain something of a debate. Every well known claim is based on local oral history which was finally written down long after the events allegedly occurred.
New Haven, Connecticut
According to the citizens of New Haven, Connecticut, the first hamburgers in U.S. history were sold at Louis' Lunch, a small lunch wagon run by New Haven native Louis Lassen. Lassen specialized in steak sandwiches, and decided to grind up the trimmings, grill them and serve them up as another sandwich option for the local factory workers to purchase. There was no bun (these sandwiches were served on fresh sliced bread). The sandwhich was essentially what we know today as a loose meat sandwich.1
You can still buy a hamburger at the Crown Street luncheonette (now called Louis Lunch), owned and operated by the third and fourth generation of Lassens. But you can't have it your way - they only offer cheese, tomato and onion.2
According to Texas historian Frank Tolbert, Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas actually invented the hamburger. Davis (who went by "Old Dave") reportedly ran a cafe in Athens and served hamburger sandwiches in the 1880's. The only actual documentation of Davis' hamburger, however, is a photo of "Old Dave's Hamburger Stand" at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and a report noting the stand in the New York Tribune as "the innovation of a food vendor on the pike." The "pike" refers to the fair's midway.3
McDonald's Corporation has spent a great deal of time and money trying to find the true inventor of the hamburger and their own historians report that "the inventor was an unknown food vendor at the St. Louis Fair in 1904."4
Hamburg, New York
The Hamburg Chamber of Commerce tells yet another tale. They report that Charles and Frank Menches from Stark County, Ohio, were travelling a circuit of fairs and farmers' picnics in the early 1880's. Using a portible gasoline stove they prepared and sold sandwiches made of pork sausage, fried egg, fried liverwurst, fried mush and fried peas porridge.
In 1885 while selling primarily pork sausage sandwiches at the Erie County Fair in New York they ran out of pork sausage. They obtained ground beef from a local butcher (Andrew Klein or Stein's Market, depending upon which of many versions of the story you choose to believe). You can figure out the rest.4
Thus the hamburger was born... or so it seems.
Finally, we reach Wisconsin. Home of all things cheese. So why not the hamburger? There sure are a lot of cows in Wisconsin. At any rate, Seymour historians claim that Charlie Nagreen served the world's first hamburger at the Seymour Fair of 1885, five months before the Hamburg version.4 It was reportedly a flattened meatball, which the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce says doesn't count (and that they first coined the word "hamburger" on a downtown awning).5
Unfortunately for Seymour natives, the program printed for the "Home of the Hamburger Celebration" in 1989 contained a reprinted account of the first Seymour Fair in 1885... and there was no mention Nagreen's invention.4 Well, at least they have the world's largest hamburger festival, the Annual Hamburger Festival, of course.6
And so, in my opinion at least, it comes down to this: who's got the biggest roadside sign making the claim "We Invented the Freakin' Hamburger!"
Where does Sven come up with this stuff?
1. The Library of Congress, America's Story
2. Louis Lunch
3. Athens, Texas
4. Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States, John E. Harmon
5. Hamburg Chamber of Commerce
6. Home of the Hamburger