Nathan’s Famous was first established in1916 by Nathan Handwerker and his wife Ida Handwerker who came up with the recipe and whose grandma came up with the secret mixture of spices, yet I don’t see any of their names anywhere . . . Nathan was advised by singing waiters Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante to start his own business and compete with his former employer at Feltman’s German Grey Gardens. The owner of the restaurant, Charles Feltman is known for having invented the hot dog in 1874. He and his wife spent their $300 life savings to start the hot dog business. Nathan made a smart move when he charged 5 cents while his competitors was charging 10 for a hot dog. He also made a smart marketing move, during a time when there weren’t many health regulations, he made sure men wearing surgeon smocks were seen eating the hot dogs so it looked like doctors approved of the oh so suspicious “hot dog.”
Now obviously Nathan, was the business side of things, and later so was his son Murray who oversaw the expansion of the restaurant chain, but Ida was the creative half. And I can only imagine that before they were able to streamline the food process, this was before assembly line, that she was the one slaving away in the kitchen. Even Nathan’s history section skirts over the part where Ida and Nathan were a team:
“Nathan’s Famous was founded by a Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, and his is truly an authentic “only in America story.” He started his business in 1916 with a small hot dog stand in Coney Island, New York. He sold hot dogs that were manufactured based on a recipe developed by his wife, Ida.”
That’s the only mention. Why is it his business and not their business? It was their savings. Ida also worked at Feltman’s, so it’s not as though he was the breadwinner. The company site even includes a year by year timeline and Ida isn’t even mentioned. Up until very recently it was OK to ignore the fact that most small businesses were ran by couples and not just the men with tiny egos who need to plaster their namesake on awnings. They could have easily called it “Handwerker’s Famous” because Ida and Nathan both share the last name, but no, it’s Nathan’s Famous. Just like that Ida and her grandmother are erased from history. Just like that when you think of the hot dog, you think a man must’ve created it when really, a man is only responsible for marketing it.
I know the history of a mostly gross hot dog doesn’t seem all that important but it is. The hot dog is iconic to America and at the time these were some super famous dogs. As Coney Island states, ” In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt served Nathan’s Famous hot dogs to King George and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. Nelson Rockefeller once also proclaimed, ‘No man can hope to get elected in New York state without being photographed eating hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous.'”
Imagine being the inventor and all you hear are the words, Nathan, Nathan, Nathan. I would love to talk to Ida about this. Maybe she didn’t care or accepted the state of the times and was just happy to have success. But I find it troubling that I can’t find any info on Ida Handwerker herself. The above picture, is the only one I could find. She’s just a noun, a wife, a blurb, in the story of Nathan Handwerker’s success. My point is, it’s her story too. And if it were OK to tell her story at that time, then maybe a couple of crazy gals with a yummy recipe would have gone into business together and we’d be eating McGirlies and Burger Queen today.
This phenomenon is nothing new as Forbes describes the nature in which men steal women’s ideas today while The Guardian, in 2010, uncovered a history, that spans hundreds of years, of women’s significant contributions being excluded from the history of science at The Royal Society.
Clearly, both members of the couple deserve the credit because together they had the talent and the skills to make the company a success. I just hope that today, women aren’t afraid to come out of the shadows of men and be accountable for their successes and failures because that’s what being a person, a woman, with agency and autonomy is all about.
Today, on this here July 4th, Independence Day, the day when Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is held, the day of the American hot dog, let’s remember Ida Handwerker. At least one year let’s call them Ida’s Famous.