Thursday, May 18, 2017

German Americans in American Culture

I recently had a post about British vs. American English terminology. It was sparked by a YouTube video I watched where Irish people were taste testing different American sandwiches. Since then, YouTube made a few other recommendations for me, on stereotypes different countries or cultures have of one another and so forth. Though perhaps not directly related, this all sparked a memory of when I was a teenager on vacation in Orlando, Florida.

I visited a lot of Orlando tourist sites at that time: Disney World and Epcot Center, Cypress Gardens and Sea World. My parents and I also ate at some novelty restaurants. One of them was a British fish and chips place. There are a couple of Irish pubs near me in New Jersey that serve excellent fish and chips. This place was different, with an indoor bright red double decker bus for seating and one of the famous London red phone booths for atmosphere. I wish I could remember the name of the place. I have a feeling it no longer exists. I tried Googling it but couldn't seem to find a restaurant of that description.

A British tourist sat alone at a table near us. While we were being adventurous and enjoying our French fries/"chips" with the traditional malt vinegar, the British tourist reached for the more American condiment on the table ... a bottle of ketchup. "Heinz?" he says as he grasps the ketchup bottle. "This isn't American! This is German!"

That moment has sparked quite a lot of thought since then, even some twenty some years later. If I had been bolder, I might have started a conversation with the tourist, and we could have had quite the discussion on German-Americans and their influence on American culture. My mother does remember telling him that Americans are made up of all sorts of people.

I have to wonder what the guy was thinking. Surely, he must know that America is a land of immigrants. He might make that observation by watching the people that surrounded him in Orlando, unless he assumed that half of them were foreign tourists just as he was. Orlando, and Disney World in particular, does attract a lot of foreign tourists as well as American ones. Maybe his British pride believed that the majority of us were of English heritage and have nice little English surnames or that an American ketchup company established as far back as 1869 surely must have an English sounding name. German-Americans have not been here as long as the English, who were, of course, our first settlers, but they have been here quite a while and have been influential on a lot of very American things, including ketchup.

My ketchup-eating friend might be surprised to learn that, these days, Americans of German heritage actually outnumber those of English heritage. According to a 2013 U.S. Census, there are more Americans of German roots, 46 million, than Irish, 33 million, or English, 25 million.  Personally, I'm a good mixture of both, with more or less equal parts German and English coming from both parents. It turns out, after one of my brothers took a DNA test through, that my heritage is a bit more complicated than that. Still, this is true.

What can be more American than a hot dog? Not only was America's chief ketchup company started by a German-American, but the foods that commonly accompany ketchup can be traced to German-Americans as well.

There are a few different origin stories of the hamburger and hot dog, so it doesn't seem to be completely settled. Think of the alternate names for the hot dog: frankfurter or weiner, both names relating to European cities, either Frankfurt, Germany or Vienna (Wien,) Austria. Some stories claim that these sausages began in these European cities, predating America. They were later introduced to America by immigrants. It could also be that the American hot dog is slightly different than either of these.

American hot dogs were first called "little dachshund sausages." There's one claim that a German immigrant sold them with sauerkraut and milk rolls from a push cart in New York City's Bowery in the 1860s. Charles Feltman, a German baker, began selling dachshund sausages at Coney Island in 1871.

German-Americans are the reason we sometimes accompany the American hot dog with this odd food with the very German sounding name.


The hamburger is another American food with a very German sounding name, hamburger as in from Hamburg. It likely started first as Hamburg steak, a steak made up of ground beef, a food familiar to German immigrants. It's not really clear who first had the idea to serve it in a roll as a sandwich.

The Hamburg America Line shipping company employed many German immigrants in the 1840s. Ships from Hamburg often came to New York City, and city restaurants began serving Hamburg steak to get business from the German sailors. The hamburger as a sandwich seems to come out of street vendors for major events such as amusement parks and fairs. There are a few different controversial ideas of who invented and/or popularized the sandwich.

Yes, Henry J. Heinz, the son of German immigrants, began his company in 1869, producing and bottling several food products, including ketchup. Heinz isn't the only German surname you will find in major American food companies (and other big companies besides.)

Henry J. Heinz

How about Oscar Meyer, a producer of hot dogs, bologna and other meats?

Oscar Mayer

How about Claussen pickles? Or many or our pretzel companies that have names like Utz, which sells Bachmann pretzels, Sturgis and Snyder of Hanover?

Just about every American beer brewer seems to be started by a German-American, with names like Anheuser-Busch (producer of Budweiser), Coors, Pabst and Schlitz. Although perhaps not as obvious, Wikipedia lists Frederick Miller, creator of Miller beer, as a German-American. Beer and pretzels. Should this be surprising?

As a nice little teetotaler personally, I'll just post a photo of these pretty Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales.

Also, Milton Hershey of Hershey Chocolate, was a German-American.

Milton Hershey

There are other German-Americans who gave their names to big American businesses, unrelated to foods. What about Boeing aircraft? Or Pfizer and Merck pharmaceuticals? There are many others.

Here are some other German-Americans who made great contributions in the arts.

Charles Schulz, the artist behind Peanuts and Snoopy.

Dr. Theodore Seuss Geisel, (Dr. Seuss,) author of The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and many other beloved children's stories.

L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz and Oz series books.

German-Americans have made a lot of contributions to American culture.


  1. Great post! Read it on Google+ in the Promote Your Blog community.
    My real surname is German ... Von Zalez is the name use to blog.

    1. Great. Thank you for your comment. :) I have an English surname in spite of having German heritage from both parents. My mother was a Mentzer. :)

  2. Very well written, and some great insights! I'm married to a an Englishman, have a daughter who is majoring in Italian and minoring in linguistics, and a son who taught English in Japan & is pursuing his Masters in ESL. Needless to say, we have plenty of fun/interesting discussions about very similar topics!
    Nicely done, Joy!

    1. Hi Heidi. With my English major, I had an emphasis in teaching ESL. I taught English for a couple of summers in Hungary and Latvia, but I haven't done anything much with that recently except for tutoring a Korean man in English. And, yes, I like languages and cultural discussions as well. :) I've studied French, Russian and German.

  3. Great post :) Budweiser was the one that surprised me, until I saw an advert for it the other week which talked about the history of the beer I had no idea there was German involvement.

    1. Thanks Mike. I was just looking over some old posts and realized I hadn't replied to your comment. As I did my research for this, I found this quite interesting too. :)