Monday, July 4, 2016

Before Pink's: Hot Dogs in Southern California Prior to 1939

Just as the East Coast is the bastion of hot dog history, Southern California has traditionally been seen as a hamburger mecca, thanks in part to its car culture and drive-in architectural masterpieces such as Simon’s, Roberts Brothers, and Bob’s Big Boy. Alternately Southern California has a few beloved hot dog emporiums that still draw a crowd half a century or more after they opened. Pink’s has been in business 77 years; Art’s (the proclaimed birthplace of chili dog) also opened in 1939; Cupid’s just celebrated their 70th anniversary; and [Der] Wienerschnitzel is celebrating their 55th anniversary on Monday, July 11, 2016 with 55¢ chili, mustard, or kraut dogs. But what was southern California’s relationship with the hot dog in the years before 1939?

Whether called a hot dog, red hot, wienerwurst, or frankfurter, Los Angeles had a love affair with the wiener by the 1890s. A September 1894 article in the Los Angeles Times noted a high concentration of food carts and could be found near Main and First, thanks in a large part to the proliferation of saloons in the area. The wienerwurst carts competed alongside the popular tamale men and oyster carts. By 1896, Cline Bros. grocery was selling 3 cans of imported frankfurters for $1.00 (comparable to a little over $27 today, no word on how many franks were in a can). Purchasing in this quantity would have been attractive to hot dog vendors. The following year Cline’s advertised the price of frankfurters per can, instead of as a bundle. This suggests more families were buying hot dogs for home consumption.

Hot dog for the masses

As early twentieth century Los Angeles grew into a metropolis, it was already a city of incredible diversity and varied socio-economic backgrounds. The hot dog was cheap and easy to eat, a combination that drew its share of fans especially among working class Angelenos and tourists. Stands and carts that sold the delicacy could be found anywhere there was a crowd—in the city, at the beaches, at sporting events, and even feeding those attending the areas many religious revivals.

City governments in southern California were not fans of hot dog enthusiasts, nor were they amused by the variety of slang terms for a “frank.” During the summer of 1920 Venice city trustees passed an ordinance that all Venice “red hot” stands (as hot dog stands were known in Venice) would be banished by the following year. Los Angeles City Council followed suit in August 1920 and held a public hearing that proposed the banishment of food carts that the health department deemed unsanitary. Councilmen Frederick C. Wheeler and Ralph Luther Criswell were the only two city officials that defended the carts. Slang, and those that used it, were an affront to decency. In 1916 the Pomona City Council objected to a Ganesha Park concessionaire who advertised hot dogs, “bow-wows,” “ki-yis” and “red hots.” The Pomona Police Commissioner complained that “such terms as ‘hot dog’ are beneath the dignity of the people who pay taxes to keep up this beautiful resort.” By the early 1920s, San Fernando Valley residents were complaining that hot dog stands along Ventura Boulevard were creating an eyesore and should be removed.
Ugly hot dog stands were not merely a local problem. In 1928, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. sponsored a contest to “oust the slapstick, three-for-a-nickel hot dog stands along highways, and to encourage the high-grade stands to become more beautiful to blend with the landscape.” The contest offered $1000 in prizes. W.H. Young’s hot dog stand in Ontario (CA) one third place, he was beat by a stand in New York and a stand in New Jersey. It was not just the stands themselves that were a problem—hot dog sellers, and buyers, were often seen as a nuisance.

Occasionally the Los Angeles Times reported the behavior of those associated with frankfurters. These incidents no doubt shocked the city’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. For example, it was a “hot dog” sandwich (quotes included, in the parlance of the time) that led to a 1910 lunch stand brawl at Central and Fifth Street. The fight left one allegedly drunk and belligerent man dead, and the other—a sober cigar store owner—claiming self-defense. Hot dogs were also an accomplice in the arrest of Dan Boggie and Ben Dunkle in April 1922. Boggie and Dunkle ran a hot dog stand under the Savoy Hotel. Their specialty was—Prohibition be damned—a ginger-ale highball and a hot dog for 60 cents (approximately $8.50 today). The Times noted that the arresting officer had been a patron every day for a week.

Hot dogs came to the rescue of “thirsty” Angelenos in the days before the Volstead Act. A large number of saloons existed in pre-Prohibition Los Angeles alongside an even larger congregation of temperance minded people who were both politically active and vocal. One 1901 jury verdict had the teetotalers up in arms. Section 34 of the city ordinance, which addressed the terms under which saloons could operate under on Sundays, stated that a bona fide meal should consist of a quantity and quality of food that might serve as a meal in hotels and restaurants. Those in violation faced arrest or the loss of their operating license. In November 1901 a jury disagreed with the City Council and Police Commission (who were both Section 34 defenders and authorities of the “bona fide meal”) and decided that a “kiln-dried wienerwurst and stale bread” was sufficient enough to constitute a lawful bona fide meal and thereby satisfied the rules of the Sunday Law. This verdict allowed many a saloonkeeper to keep his doors open and the liquor flowing on Sunday.

On a less ominous note, wieners were perfect holiday fare! In 1912, the Times commented that Venice’s shoreline “where dwells the elusive pink lemonade and hot dog” was packed on Easter Sunday. Over the 1913 July 4th holiday weekend it was estimated that 150,000 visited Venice, Ocean Park, and Santa Monica. The famished visitors caused provision houses to run out of supplies and hot dog stands to close down without a way to replenish their precious commodity. Who doesn’t love a PE car to the shore on a holiday weekend? In January 1918 one vendor in Venice at Windward Avenue and Trolleyway sold his spot and his kettle for $400 ($6000ish today). His friends said he earned $15 to $25 a day in the spot ($200-300 today). Popularity and profit margin assured that the hot dog business was profitable.

It was this supply and demand that had stands popping up overnight at popular events throughout the southland. During the mid-1910s there are descriptions of several events, such as the Rose Parade and the auto races, that actually mention the price of a “hot dog” was ten cents, double what it was everywhere else though ‘nobody kicked’ about the inflated rate. The flipside of this coin is the fact that bread men stocking said hot dog vendors at Ascot Park in March 1916 were actually helping to smuggle people past the admission gate.

Today, hot dogs are a ubiquitous 4th of July foodstuff but they were not always nationalist fare. During World War I, it was one’s patriotic duty to eschew hot dogs on both ‘meatless Tuesday’ and ‘wheatless Friday.’ Unfortunately for Pasadena-bound vendors, the normally lucrative Rose Parade fell on ‘meatless Tuesday’ in 1918. There were also dangerous hot dog mishaps in Pasadena. Onlookers were horrified when the gas stove of a hot dog vendor exploded during the 1925 Rose Parade in Pasadena. Five people were severely injured and “burned a score of others.” The accident prompted the Pasadena City Manager, C.W. Koiner, to consider an ordinance banning gasoline stoves and ovens on the streets of the city.
It’s a wonder there were not more instances of fatalities when stoves were surrounded by crowds of people. In the early 1920s, miracle man and healer Brother Isaiah drew crowds of curious people to a hill opposite Lincoln Park. Hot dog man C.L. Rising set up his stand on the aptly dubbed Miracle Hill and as you can suspect he was not the only concessionaire. Unfortunately for Rising, a Hughes ice cream truck backed into his stand, causing a chain of events that led to an explosion of his gas stove, burning Rising and the $200 profits (approximately $2800 today) he had in his pocket. The Los Angeles Times makes no mention of the price of his dogs but the profits indicate they were popular.

Hot dogs were popular enough that they became the target of thieves. One case in October 1924 took place near Simons brickyard. A man padlocked his fully stocked hot dog stand and left his bulldog inside to protect it. He returned to find the padlock broken, his dog still inside, and $76 worth (approximately $1000 today) of wieners missing. He promptly gave the police the short list of people his bulldog would not attack.

Frankfurters and fundraisers!

Well-to-do Angelenos favored wieners for their events. Hot dogs were on the bill of fare at the big Actors’ Fund Festival in June 1921. Most motion picture studios participated in the fundraising event that benefitted “actors of yesteryear” (and was a precursor to the Motion Picture and Television Fund). One impressive offering was the “Adornment of Woman” pageant, which featured “700 motion picture stars” wearing fashions “back to the age of Eve.” Society women, clubmen, and authors were also involved in the event that took raised $100,000 (approximately $1.3 million today). The hot dog stands were hosted by Mrs. Granville MacGowan who persuaded society girls to dole out the dogs. (Fun tidbit: Mr. MacGowan was the founder of the Los Angeles Health Department!) Hot dogs also fed attendees of the Society Circus in September 1921. Every dollar earned at the event was added to a fund to build the Hollywood Bowl. The Los Angeles Times noted, “The pedigree hot-dog stand, under the care of [Hollywood Chamber of Commerce member] Edward Bogardus, is said to have on hand 4000 pounds of meat.” Hot dogs were the food of choice at a noon to midnight Ebell Club fundraiser at the West Adams home of oilman Chester Wallace Brown. Money was being raised for a new and larger “Ebell Rest Cottage” (the cottage would go on to be designed by architect Julia Morgan according to the Ebell Club website). The hot dog stand was under the care of Mrs. C.R. Luton (Mr. Luton was the president of Tip Top Oil Company). The event raised $8000 (approximately $114,000 today). Perhaps sponsors of tonier events appreciated the frugality of the hand-held delicacy but more likely, everyone loved hot dogs.

Movie people and businessmen were both fans of frankfurters. A functioning hot-dog wagon had a bit part in a 1919 film starring J. Warren Kerrigan and directed by Ernest C. Warde. The smells from the cart teased the 200+ hungry extras to the point that they stormed the cart and divvied up the fifty-ish hot dogs it held. The following year the Los Angeles Times ran a photo essay on titled, “Many men of many minds eat lunch in different ways. How do you eat yours? At the Alexandria [Hotel] or at a hot dog wagon the street?” The caption for the wagon reads: ‘Hot Dogs are always popular and help keep down old H.C.L’ (assuming that means high cost of living). In a city filled with quick lunch options, such as dairy lunch spots and cafeterias, the hot dog part was even quicker.
Early southern California fraternal orders realized the power of the hot dog too. The Los Angeles Elks held a “Country Fair” in April 1900, throwing open the doors to the Elks Hall on South Spring. Three popular food booths were described by the Times—one had wiener wurst, pickles and horseradish “for those inclined to German diet”; one booth served tamales “where the desire for food of the Spanish order could be satisfied”; there was also a Country Kitchen that served up coffee and donuts, milk and gingerbread, or sandwiches and root beer. Events such as the Country Fair generated goodwill and helped the Elks grow their organization.

Of course kids loved them!

The frankfurter devotion of one young lad cannot go unmentioned. In July 1926, ten year old Sidney Chupack was thoroughly engrossed in the consumption of his hot dog while standing on the Union Pacific tracks near Pasadena Avenue and Arroyo Glen. That’s where he was picked up by the cowcatcher of (I’m assuming) slow moving train and deposited 100 feet from his original location. He was still holding his hot dog at the end of the unexpected ride and walked away with just a small scratch on his elbow.

In 1916 there are instances of hot dog vendors being banned from selling their products near some Los Angeles high school campuses. In the case of Polytechnic High School, the Board of Education was shown what the profit margin would be if they began selling hot dogs in the Polytechnic cafeteria (it would cost them 1.33 cents to prepare and would retail for 5 cents). A ban was quickly ordered on hot dog vendors on that campus and I’m assuming the cafeteria began serving hot dogs themselves. In 1921, Van Nuys High School freshman hit upon the idea of selling hot dogs to boost their treasury. They netted $10.68 in profits with their first try, during a game against Lancaster.

Bill Friend, a tackle on USC’s varsity football team, put himself through college by operating a hot dog stand across from the campus’ Administrative offices. Friend had an assistant that manned the booth while he was in classes. He also had assistants who oversaw his four auto parking stands and his shoe shine stand. Mr. Friend attended high school in Phoenix, where he established a student book story that was given to the student body of Union High School before his move to USC.

College kids and hot dog entrepreneurship apparently went hand in hand in the mid-1920s. An article in the Los Angeles Times tells of an unnamed “college boy” in Zelzah (aka Northridge) who would open self-serve hot dog stands at “leading intersections” in the San Fernando Valley. The idea was that patrons would pay for a hot dog at the unmanned stand and help themselves to the “sandwiches done up in a neat package.” “From daylight to dark each day [the young man] plans to travel through the valley, replenishing “honor” stands as fast as tourists ride by and eat up the supply.” No word on how the hot dogs would be kept warm. Perhaps just by the heat in the Valley.

How were they served?

In 1923, Young’s Market advertised their store-made weiners [sic] or frankfurters were 18 cents per pound for those that wanted to cook their own at home. By 1927 Young’s was marketing their “Barkies” as a healthful foodstuff, dubbed “the aristocrat of frankfurters,” and they price had jumped to 25 cents per pound.

Cookbooks of the period merely mentioned how to cook the frankfurters. The 1936 edition of Good Cooking, acknowledged that they were “usually boiled 5 to 10 minutes, or split and broiled 7 to 10 minutes according to size, and served with mustard in a long roll.” The 1937 edition of The Household Searchlight Recipe Book takes it one step further, noting that they should be cooked until tender by steaming, boiling, or broiling. They include a recipe for an ersatz SOS, stating that the cooked frankfurters could be “sliced and combined with a generous amount of well-seasoned white sauce and served on toast.”

Despite the ease of preparation and the profitability of frankfurters, few Los Angeles restaurateurs served frankfurters. Even modest restaurants chose to serve cheese sandwiches or peanut butter sandwiches as their easy to prepare, low-cost dining option. Notable exceptions included the Hofbrau Garden, a German restaurant that morphed into a Swiss-American restaurant during WWII, which served imported frankfurters with hot potato salad and sauerkraut.

Bradley's 5 and 10 served their hot dog with a pot of beans.

The Nut Kettle on the Sunset Strip served "Barkies" in addition to their famed nutburger, which according to a hand-written note was a small amount of chopped nuts on a normal hamburger. Harry Carpenter's Drive-In, Sunset Bowling Center, and Globe Coffee Shop served hot dogs on buns, and Eddie Brandstatter's short-lived Bohemia Grill on Vine served a "Chicago Frankfurter."

In 1924, the Los Angeles Times notes that visitors to Venice (CA) consume 3.5 tons of hot dogs weekly. Carts had been supplanted by hot dog “palaces,” which numbered more than fifty and many seated more than 300 people. The Times describes the dogs as cooked on a griddle. They were served with mustard, two slices of pickle, a crisp piece of lettuce, and delivered on a napkin. Their fans included clerks, schoolboys, bankers and motion-picture celebrities.

Just as elsewhere across the country during the early twentieth century, hot dogs were enjoyed by young and old, rich and poor. In the number of establishments and visitors, the popularity of a year-round seaside hot dog rivaled Coney Island. A uniquely southern California twist on frankfurter lore is the fact that, even before Pink’s hit the scene, hot dogs helped fund the Hollywood Bowl, and retirement accommodations for society women, and motion picture veterans. Hooray for Hollywood hot dogs!

SOURCES: Los Angeles Times, Van Nuys News, Ontario Daily Report (thanks to Kelly Zackmann), Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, and USC Digital Library. All menus and cookbooks from author’s collection.