Selling 'em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food / Edition 1

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In the wake of World War I, the hamburger was still considered a disreputable and undesirable food. Yet by 1930 Americans in every corner of the country accepted the hamburger as a mainstream meal and eventually made it a staple of their diet. The quintessential "American" food, hamburgers have by now spread to almost every country and culture in the world. But how did this fast food icon come to occupy so quickly such a singular role in American mass culture?

In Selling ‘em By the Sack, David Gerard Hogan traces the history of the hamburger's rise as a distinctive American culinary and ethnic symbol through the prism of one of its earliest promoters. The first to market both the hamburger and the "to go" carry-out style to American consumers, White Castle quickly established itself as a cornerstone of the fast food industry. Its founder, Billy Ingram, shrewdly marketed his hamburgers in large quantities at five cents a piece, telling his customers to "Buy'em by the Sack."

The years following World War II saw the rise of great franchised chains such as McDonald's, which challenged and ultimately overshadowed the company that Billy Ingram founded. Yet White Castle stands as a charismatic pioneer in one of America's most formidable industries, a company that drastically changed American eating patterns, and hence, American life. It could be argued that what Henry Ford did for the car and transportation, Billy Ingram did for the hamburger and eating.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Hogan makes a convincing case for White Castle's influence."

-Jonathan Yardley,Washington Post

"A fascinating story . . .Hogan tells a truly American success story—luck and hard work behind one man to create an industry so pervasive that today it's an integral part of American pop culture."

-Publishers Weekly,

"A scholar's lively account of how White Castle, now a largely overlooked but still profitable also-ran in the domestic restaurant trade, made the once-scorned hamburger a U.S. institution and launched the fast-food industry. . . . Informed and engaging perspectives on an often ignored aspect of cultural and commercial Americana."

-Kirkus Reviews,

"David Hogan's love of fast food goes back at least twenty years: I remember talking to him while he gulped down a McDonald's before the start of class. Few historians I know would be able to translate their penchant for fast food into a wonderful case study of the first chain to sell huge numbers of hamburgers-to-go. Selling 'em by the Sack, which traces the fortunes and failures of White Castle from the 1920s to the 1990s, deftly blends biography, social history, and corporate history. In doing so, Hogan gives us a fascinating glimpse into American popular culture."

-Andrew Achenbaum,Professor of History, University of Michigan

"Full of fascinating details, not only for devotees of the ubiquitous 'slider,' but also for pop-culturists interested in American fast food and how it all got started."

-Minneapolis Star Tribune,

Hogan (American history, Heidelberg College) traces the history of the hamburger's rise as a distinctive American culinary and ethnic symbol through the exploits of one of the pioneers in the fast food industry, Billy Ingram of the White Castle chain. Comparing Ingram to the Henry Ford of eating, Hogan traces the chain's history from its founding in 1921 until it was overshadowed by McDonald's and other franchises after WWII. Includes over 20 pages of b&w photographs. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Before the golden arches graced America, fast food's façade was a turreted white palace, where five-cent hamburgers were flipped late into the night by young men in immaculate, starched uniforms. White Castle burgers -- mini steam-grilled patties served on warm buns and smothered with grilled onions -- were America's first "fast food." How did a relatively small, Midwestern burger joint founded in the 1920s help christen the hamburger as America's own "ethnic" food? How did White Castle eventually usher in the age of sprawling fast food franchises? David Gerard Hogan's Selling 'Em by the Sack intends to be a culinary, social and corporate history -- one tall order.

White Castle did not invent the hamburger, Hogan writes, but made it palatable to Americans wary of ground meat in the age of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." White Castle co-founder Billy Ingram reassured customers that White Castle served quality burgers by situating grills in full view of customers; by stressing cleanliness and only hiring men with "high personal hygiene"; and by proving the nutritional value of the burgers through commissioned "studies." (In one, a student lived for 13 weeks on only White Castle burgers and water -- he ate about 20 burgers a day and thrived.)

Hogan, an associate professor of American history at Heidelberg College in Ohio, is clearly enamored with his subject -- at times his prose sounds like PR for the home office -- but amidst the gushing he makes a strong case for Ingram as a corporate pioneer, initiating such enduring business practices as keeping in touch with employees through spirited company newsletters, offering workers generous bonuses and benefits to inspire company loyalty and making sure that all his restaurants looked identical. It is when Hogan strays from his role as corporate historian to cultural one that he gets into hot water. "The hamburger is all around us on a daily basis consumed by many millions," he writes. "The fact that it is so close, so mundane, so unextraordinary is exactly what makes it so important and central to who we are as people."

Hogan's biggest blunder, though, may be his skimpy analysis of White Castle's discriminatory hiring policies. "Despite the constant labor shortage ... White Castle never tapped the abundant supply of available African American workers with the exception of one cleaning woman hired during World War II," Hogan writes in one of the only passages to examine White Castle's racist past. While White Castle never segregated its restaurants, the company was criticized for not hiring the blacks who overwhelmingly populated the city centers where most White Castles were located. "[After] a brief boycott in New York City in July 1963, White Castle actively started recruiting more black workers and soon achieved an acceptable racial balance." Hogan never defines "acceptable racial balance," or the repercussions of the boycott. White Castle has survived the McDonald's-ization of America -- more than 300 restaurants remain. Hogan's most provocative claim -- that White Castle's longevity and success are due in part to its "cult" status (he likens White Castle devotees to Trekkies and Deadheads) -- comes at the end of the book and is backed with little evidence. Don't look for any interviews or quotes from these burger fanatics, because they're not here. We just have to take Hogan's word for it. --SALON Jan. 21, 1998

Business Week
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Full of fascinating details, not only for devotees of the ubiquitous 'slider,' but also for pop-culturists interested in American fast food and how it all got started.
Kirkus Reviews
A scholar's lively account of how White Castle, now a largely overlooked but still profitable also-ran in the domestic restaurant trade, made the once-scorned hamburger a US institution and launched the fast-food industry.

Drawing on a variety of sources, historian Hogan (Heidelberg Coll.) first reviews the ethnic and regional character of America's food preferences prior to the 1920s. He goes on to document the accomplishments of the two men who founded White Castle late in 1921 in Wichita, Kans.: Walt Anderson, inventor of the hamburger, and Billy Ingram, whose marketing genius helped make Anderson's creation a staple of American diets. On the strength of standardization, quality control, a commitment to cleanliness, and conservative financial practices, they soon had a lucrative national network of faux-citadel outlets vending tiny ground-meat patties served with an abundance of pungent onions on diminutive buns for a nickel apiece; enjoining customers to "buy em by the sack," the partners also pioneered the take-out business. Although it survived the Great Depression in fine style, White Castle was hard hit by WW II's home-front price controls, shortages, and restrictions. Having staggered through the 1940s, however, the company retained its fanatically loyal clientele in the cities while formidable new rivals (Big Boy, Gino's, Hardee's, Howard Johnson, McDonald's, et al.) preempted fast-growing suburban markets. Although no longer a leader in the field of franchising giants it helped create, White Tower occupies a rewarding niche that, thanks to effective management practices, promises to provide worthwhile returns for years to come.

Informed and engaging perspectives on an often ignored aspect of cultural and commercial Americana. The 20 illustrations include contemporary photos of White Castle outlets and the company's early advertisements.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814735671
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 218
  • Sales rank: 1,310,198
  • Product dimensions: 5.73 (w) x 8.71 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

David Gerard Hogan received his doctorate in history from Carnegie Mellon University and is currently Associate Professor of American History at Heidelberg College in Ohio.

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