No dogs were harmed in the making of this American culinary staple. 

Every July 4th, Americans stop what they're doing and gather around the television to watch Joey Chestnut guzzle (yes, guzzle) down what can only be described as an alarming number of hot dogs on the Coney Island Boardwalk. 

Ok, that may be a slight exaggeration, but you'd be hard-pressed to make it through the summer without eating — or at least encountering — a hot dog or two at a ballgame or a backyard barbecue.  

But for how critical of a role they play in American sporting and grilling culture, you may not really know much about how the hot dog got its name. Though it may not have originated here, the sausage we know as the hot dog's story is that of America in microcosm. 

It First Started in Frankfurt — or Vienna

References to sausage date back to at least the days of Homer and his Odyssey, and there's some evidence suggesting humans may have been eating sausage for almost three thousand years — perhaps even longer if mesopotamian accounts of meat stuffed into casings made of intestines are to be believed. 

However, the hot dog's story arguably starts in 1487 — five years before Columbus would "discover" the hot dog's future homeland. That's when the frankfurter, a thinner take on the pork sausage, was supposedly born in the German city that bears its name. Don't tell that to nearby Coburgers, though: residents of that German town claim it's actually responsible for the Frankfurter (which they passed on to the eponymous city). Vienna also has beef (somewhat literally) with the Frankfurter. Known as "Wien" in German, the capital of modern-day Austria also claims that it deserves some credit for the eventual emergence of the hot dog via the sausage Wiener

Regardless of origin, the important point is that at some point before the dawn of the 20th century, the Frankfurter/Coburger/Wiener picked up "dachshund" as a nickname. It makes sense: after all, said sausage is long and skinny. Unsurprisingly, this will eventually factor into the hot dog's story. 

Hand Holding Hotdog
Credit: Ivan/Getty Images

A Dachshund Travels to America

As German immigrants arrived in America over the course of the 19th century, they brought their culinary traditions with them. Chief among them (at least in terms of local fascination) was the Frankfurter — or, "dachshund" — sausage. By the 1860s, you could find German immigrants in New York serving these sausages from pushcarts, where they were served in a bun — as was the customary German style by then. And while the hot dog eating contest (in its current, codified form) wouldn't come around for another hundred years or so, Chartres Feltman was selling "Coney Island Red Hots" on the boardwalk of Brooklyn's famous beach by 1867. 

In the decades that followed, the dachshund would trot its way across the country. The sausage appeared at Chicago's Colombian Exposition in 1893, giving curious midwesterners greater exposure . A bit further south that same year, German immigrant Chris Von de Ahe, who just so happened to own the St. Louis Browns baseball team, supposedly started the practice of serving this particular tubed meat at baseball games. So as it turns out, one of the greatest traditions associated with America's pastime is, in fact, German. 

The story of how this particular sausage took hold in the US speaks to the benefits of America's melting pot. But the prevailing theory of how we got to "hot dog" may have something to do with less flattering depictions of German cuisine. According to historical analysis and contemporaneous reporting, the consumption of dog meat wasn't completely unheard of in certain corners of Germany during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The newness of the dachshund sausage, combined with that perception of the dietary habits of recent German immigrants, may explain how it caught on. One of the earliest documented uses of "hot dog" can be traced to an 1895 issue of the Yale Record, a meal that Ivy League students "contentedly munch[ed] on" even as they poked fun at the idea of Germans eating dogs. 

Another apocryphal story of the term's origin can be traced to baseball. In 1901, New York Journal cartoonist Tad Dorgan supposedly penned a drawing of a dachshund in a bun with the caption "hot dog!" (owing to his inability to spell the breed's name) after seeing it served at a New York Giants game. Scholars may not see much truth in the Dorgan origin story these days, but the myth may have played a role in spreading the term's popularity over time. 

Regardless, the idea of conflating the sausage with dogs was catching on by the early days of the 20th century — so much so that a 1904 Thomas Edison film pokes fun at the idea of turning dogs into sausage. By the end of the 1930s, the hot dog would be served to British royalty as part of a White House picnic. 

The name we know it by today may not have the most savory origins. But the fact that the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council estimates that the US eats around 20 billion hot dogs a year is a pretty clear sign that this German export has become an American immigrant success story. So next time you fire up the grill, say danke to the industrious Germans who landed on our shores all those years ago. Summer just wouldn't be the same without them.