Hot Dog Stands and “Overcivilized Beaches”

Image Credit: Richard Huffstutter, "Hot Dogs on City Beach, Laguna, CA," 2009, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/huffstutterrobertl/7692130486/in/photostream/

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  “From the heat and horror of the roads, from the fumes of a thousand exhausts—‘pure, ethereal gale,’ forsooth!—from all hot-dog stands, wayside ‘shoppes’ and traffic jams, good Lord, deliver us!”[1]

-Letter to the New York Times, 1929

“The Canadians have ‘beat us to it,’ They have decided to keep automobiles out of Glacier National Park so that the region may not be defiled by dust, noise, and gasolin [sic] fumes. Even hot-dog stands have been banned. The park is to be a sanctuary for mortals seeking peace and quiet.”[2]

-Letter to the New York Times, 1928

 

In my research on twentieth-century coastal park creation, I often read letters that concerned citizens sent to their elected officials about why they did or did not want a park in their favorite vacation spot. With almost absurd frequency, the reason has something to do with a hot dog stand.

Hot dog stands—more than houses, bulldozers, or roads—were the symbol of choice for the 1959 citizen concerned with coastal conservation. I found so many references to hot dog stands that I made new short-hand to refer to it. ‘Oh,’ I’d think to myself, ‘here comes the old hot dog bit again.’

Hot dog stands in Central Park, New York
Marlon E, “Hot Dog Stands in Central Park,” 2010. with caption “Yup, there’s still hot dog stands in Central Park.”

Naturally, I got to wondering why the hot dog stand became the standard bearer boogeyman for coastal overdevelopment and what nuances existed in hot dog stand fear mongering. Did all hot dog stands symbolize the same things? And did any hot dog stand references actually refer to hot dogs? What follows is a quick look at how 20th century coastal conservationists in North America found a rallying point in the image of the lowly hot dog stand.[3]

Over the first half of the 20th century, hot dog stands increasingly symbolized the aesthetic and moral encroachment of technology and consumerism on nature. Mention of roadside hot dog stands began in the New York Times in 1924, during a boom in automobile ownership and infrastructure. These early references were overwhelmingly negative, employing hot dog stands to symbolize how the automobile commercialized the countryside and its once bucolic roads.[4]

By the 1950s, coastal conservation campaigns picked up the hot dog stand as an important weapon in their quest for natural coastal parks. Threats of road-building and increased development in coastal areas combined with the image of Coney Island as the ultimate over-commercialized seaside retreat, coincidentally synonymous with hot dog stands.[5]

Because the hot dog stand represented both Coney Island, a high-development coastal park, and the tacky tourist road – two attributes that the U.S. National Park Service did not want in their coastal parks –the hot dog stand was the perfect metaphorical tool.

Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall urged local citizens groups to advocate for a roadless park on Fire Island, New York in 1962, for “we need to provide for the preservation of natural open spaces free of automobile traffic, parking lots and hot-dog stands.”[6] Canadian advocates also used hot dog stands to advocate for low impact parks, free of concert halls, on the Toronto Islands.[7]

Hot dog stands began to represent the “hodge-podge mess of commercial development” common on shorelines.[8]  Many found shoreline developments “profoundly disturbing” and recounted that the natural progression of such development was “shacks and shanties, followed by hot dog stands and other Coney Island like developments.”[9] Without conservation measures on beaches, advocates warned, “there will be one large Hot Dog stand” and coastal natural beauty “will be forever destroyed.” [10]

hotdog2
Image Credit: Richard Huffstutter, “Hot Dogs Stands: Hottest Enterprise in the USA,” 2009.

Lest I leave you thinking that the hot dog stand had purely negative connotations in North American environmental history, I should mention some ways the hot dog stand enjoyed positive press in the mid-20th century. Most positive invocations of hot dog stands concerned actual physical stands, whereas negative uses usually only mention the future (horrific) possibility of them, not any actual existent stands. Hot dog stands at carnivals, fairs, baseball games, horse races, and even Coney Island received the occasional favorable report in this period.[11] During the Depression, one concerned citizen even defended the hot dog stand as a noble way to make a few extra bucks and avoid vagrancy.[12]

The hot dog stand also sometimes piggy-backed off of the goodwill that surrounded the hot dog itself: the hot dog as the great American equalizer, symbol of the melting pot and egalitarian foundations of American democracy.[13] This sort of praise was reserved for the hot dog, rather than the kitschy,[14] scabrous,[15] unsightly,[16] junky,[17] vulgar,[18] noisy,[19] pathetic,[20] hideous[21] hot dog stand in which vendors sold the patriotic franks to wandering tourists in automobiles.

My initial, very preliminary investigations into the hot dog stands have me feeling a little sorry for it. Unlike billboards or gas stations, hot dog stands existed in many other, happier spots before, during, and after their roadside appearances. The hot dog stand’s simple, versatile construction and easy mobility equated it with destruction of rural North American nature in the automobile age.

There was no building the American conservationist feared more. In the apocalyptic words of one Cape Cod-based American socialite, “God help us if they all arrive at the same time with their hot dogs and bottles of pop.”[22]

 


 

[1] “September 2, 1929,” New York Times, September 4, 1929, 23. “Overcivilized Beaches” quote in title from Harold F. Smith, Letter to the Editor, “Overcivilized Beaches,” New York Times, July 4, 1949, 12. Smith objected to “their rows of trash cans arranged in military precision, their highly manicured boardwalks, their hygienic hot-dog stands, their well-groomed bathhouses, their standing, sitting, sleeping, swimming throngs” and preferred instead “a wilderness—a narrow, windswept strip of land with sand dunes yawning here and there, reeds, that particular kind of long grass that abounds on wild beaches, scrubby seaside undergrowth, and a feeling of being almost on the edge of the world.”

[2] “Topics of the Times: Canada’s Noiseless Sanctuary,” New York Times, August 19, 1928, 34.

[3] For an obviously non-statistical analysis of the hot dog stand’s background, I looked through the 584 mentions of ‘hot dog stands’ in the New York Times from 1914 to 2010 (I focused on the years before 1970). I combined this with hot dog stand references from my own archival research and a brief scan of the Toronto Daily Star from the same period. For the purposes of this article, I only searched for mentions of “hot dog stands” since that was the phrase I came across most frequently in coastal conservation issues in the 1960s. This would exclude any mention of “hot dog carts,” of Frankfurter stands or carts, or other colloquial terms for hot dog vendors that I would use if I were doing a more thorough history of the hot dog stand. For more on the history of the hot dog itself, see Bruce Kraig, Hot Dog: A Global History(London: Reaktion Books, 2009), Bruce Kraig and Patty Carroll, Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America (AltaMira Press, 2012), Felisa Rogers, “How the hot dog became the most American food,” Salon, June 11, 2011, accessed October 15, 204,http://www.salon.com/2011/06/11/hot_dog_history/.

[4] For early mentions in the New York Times, see “Big Advertisers Agree to Abolish Signs That Offend Lovers of Scenic Beauty,” New York Times, March 26, 1924, 1; “Tax on Gasoline Is Urged in Albany,” New York Times, February 25, 1925, 2; Steuart M. Emery, “Riding With Revere 150 Years After,” New York Times, April 19, 1925, SM4. Christopher Wells notes increasing opposition to roadside development in this period in Car CountryAn Environmental History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 172, 215. Wells also uses James Agee’s term for the interwar period, “The Great American Roadside.” Wells, Car Country, 168-173, James Agee, “The Great American Roadside,” Fortune (September 1934), 53-63. See also Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979), 89-91, 119.

[5] For more on Coney Island and its connection with hot dogs, see Michael Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2002) and Charles Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002).

[6] Warren Weaver, Jr., “Fire Island Plan Opposed By Udall: He Rebuts Moses; Plan for Road and Boat Channel—Would Keep Open Space,” The New York Times, June 21, 1962, 33.

[7] “Save the Islands,” Toronto Daily Star, December 6, 1958, 6.

[8] A professional City Planner on the Boston City Planning Board, wrote that “this is the last area on the Cape untouched by hot dog stands, motels and neon signs. Let’s keep it that way!” Tourism was an important industry in Massachusetts, “but no one will come if all they can see is a highways lined with a hodge-podge mess of commercial development.” Frederic N. Holland to John F. Kennedy, March 28, 1959, “Cape Cod National Park, 2/24/59 – 3/31/59” Folder, Senate Files, Legislation, Legislation Files 1953-1960, John F. Kennedy Library.

[9] Paul W. Karr to John F. Kennedy, May 9, 1960, “Cape Cod, 5/14/60—6/7/60,” Senate Files, Legislation, Legislation Files 1953-1960, Box 731, John F. Kennedy Library.

[10] Ruth Alexander to Hastings Keith, April 13, 1959, Hastings Keith papers, SPVC. Box 2, Folder 1.

[11] Following are just few of the positive, carnival-atmosphere events in which hot dog stands received favorable mentions: Milton Bracker, “Revelers Throng Times Sq. Again,” New York Times, January 1, 1954, 1; “Z Six-Bit Critic,” “Greatest Racing Innovation Since the First Hotdog Stand,” Toronto Daily Star, June 25, 1927, 12; “Dark Clouds May Prevent Children’s Day ‘Ex’ Record,” Toronto Daily Star, August 30, 1848, 1; “County Fairs,” New York Times, September 21, 1949, 26. Hot dogs were even mentioned positively in the 1945 celebration of V-E Day in New York City, Meyer Berger, “Lights Bring Out Victory Throngs,” New York Times, May 9, 1945, 17.

[12] “Topics of the Times: Summer Tourists in 1934,” New York Times, September 23, 1934, E4.

[13] See, among other examples, “Free U.S. Hot Dogs Spice British Fair,” New York Times, August 28, 1956, 19; “Hot Dog Plan Stirs Patriots,” New York Times, November 24, 1935, E7.

[14] “ ‘Kitsch’ Section a Joy to Persons of Taste,” New York Times, September 20, 1931, E4.

[15] “Parkways or Slums?” New York Times, January 11, 1957, 20.

[16] “Fresh From the Farm,” New York Times, November 7, 1929, 24.

[17] Peter Behr, “Peter H. Behr, Environmentalist and California State Senator, 1971-1978,” typescript of an oral history conducted 1988-1989 by Ann Lage, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1989,  140.

[18] James E. Randall to John F. Kennedy, September 10, 1959, “Cape Cod National Park, 9/7/59 – 9/29/59” Folder, Senate Files, Legislation, Legislation Files 1953-1960, Box 713,  John F. Kennedy Library.

[19] “Hot Dog Signs,” Oregon Voter, February 2 1929, 252; quoted in Derek R. Larson, “Preserving Eden: The Culture of Conservation in Oregon, 1960-1980” (PhD diss, Indiana University, 2001), 164.

[20] Eda Lou Walton, “New Poems By Robert Frost,” New York Times, May 31, 1936, BR1.

[21] Nicholas Roosevelt, “Save the Yosemite is Call to Nation,” New York Times, March 11, 1928, 49.

[22] Testimony of Mrs. Jean Chrysler, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Public Lands: Consideration of Various Proposals for the Establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore Park in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, December 16 and 17, 1960, Eastham, Massachusetts. 86th Cong., 2nd, sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1961), 177.

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Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a PhD Candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her dissertation examines coastal conservation in the postwar United States.

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