Selling 'em by the Sack

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

David Gerard Hogan
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 199
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  • Book Info
    Selling 'em by the Sack
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4452-9
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    This story is about White Castle: the company, the man who started it, and the sequence of developments that it spawned. It is social history because it analyzes how and why fast food altered American life; it is biography because it is impossible to examine White Castle without discussing the achievements and tenacity of its founder, Billy Ingram; and it is “corporate history” because it follows the company’s triumphs and failures since 1921. The White Castle story cannot be told without including any of these elements. Ingram founded the company, and the significance of the company is that it drastically...

  5. 1 American Food before White Castle
    (pp. 6-23)

    White Castle changed American culture dramatically. Now, however, the company—because of its small size—and its accomplishments—today, largely forgotten—can easily be ignored, especially in comparison with fast-food giants like McDonald’s. Indeed, White Castle was, and still is, a relatively small entity in the overall context of American business, dwarfed by the advertising machines and magnitude of larger competitors. Therefore, to understand how tiny White Castle changed America, we must look at Americans’ eating habits and culture before 1921 to appreciate what White Castle achieved.

    Some readers may be surprised that my story of White Castle begins with...

  6. 2 White Castle and the Beginning of Fast Food
    (pp. 24-56)

    The 1920s is often called the “roaring” twenties, a time when America underwent dramatic changes in its lifestyle, values, and technology. As the decade began, the consumption and sale of alcohol were prohibited under the newly enacted Volstead Act, which temporarily slowed the use of liquor in America and had consequences that lasted for years. After a decades-long battle, the suffrage movement finally achieved victory, securing voting rights for women in national elections. With the onset of commercial radio, news and entertainment filled the airwaves over Detroit and Pittsburgh. Automobiles had become a more common sight on city streets, and...

  7. 3 Hamburgers during Hard Times
    (pp. 57-82)

    In the American collective memory, the 1930s is synonymous with the Great Depression. But life in the United States during the 1930s was much more than just misery and hunger. Although many companies closed and many individuals suffered, business was still transacted, farmers still grew crops, and most Americans’ lives still continued more or less as usual. Americans also maintained their newfound passion for hamburgers, and this demand for burgers amid hardship was not accidental. Billy Ingram and his White Castle System thrived throughout the Depression, owing to his great resourcefulness, ingenious marketing strategies, and dedication to quality and low...

  8. 4 White Castle Goes to War
    (pp. 83-110)

    Billy Ingram was optimistic as the 1940s began. After surviving the Depression, he was confident that his company could overcome any future obstacles and continue to prosper. Despite the widespread economic decay throughout American society in the 1930s, White Castle ended the decade larger and more solvent than any time in its past. With an economic revival forecast, Ingram and the rest of the White Castle management team predicted that the coming decade would be their best yet. Selling more than 38 million hamburgers in 1939, 41,040,750 in 1940, and a record 50,192,785 in 1941, such optimism seemed to be...

  9. 5 White Castle Rises Again
    (pp. 111-144)

    The 1940s ended bleakly for White Castle. Billy Ingram’s hamburger empire was reduced to virtually half its previous size, with little hope for recovery. Although White Castle’s sales rebounded immediately after the war in 1946, this good fortune was short lived. Meat shortages, government-imposed price ceilings, and wage freezes continued to plague company operations. Worse still was the continuing shortage of qualified labor to run the Castles, resulting in more closures. During the eight years following World War II, sales rose and fell sharply, buffeted by still another war, fluctuating food prices, and the mixed blessing of a healthy economy....

  10. 6 White Castle in the Age of McDonald’s
    (pp. 145-173)

    American society changed drastically in the three decades between 1960 and 1990. Much happened during this tumultuous time, altering how Americans lived their lives, viewed their country, and even how they ate their meals. The middle class completed its exodus from the city to suburbia, in the process repositioning society’s wealth and redefining the dominant culture. The stereotypical family of the 1950s mutated into entirely new forms. Deeply entrenched gender roles and stereotypes began to crumble, often allowing many American women greater mobility and responsibility. Unlike previous brief wartime stints in the workplace, women broke out of their imposed domesticity...

  11. Epilogue: White Castle’s Role in History
    (pp. 174-180)

    Like an septuagenarian still running marathons, White Castle continues to compete with other, stronger and faster chains and still enjoys remarkable health. Remaining a vibrant and growing company after more than seventy-five years in the hamburger business, White Castle currently owns approximately three hundred restaurants distributed across fourteen cities in the United States. In addition, the company also still operates its subsidiary, Porcelain Steel Buildings, and recently began a thriving frozen-food plant that makes and distributes White Castle hamburgers to grocery stores across the country. The company’s overall combined sales for 1995 exceeded $325 million. White Castle also recently announced...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 181-192)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-196)
  14. Index
    (pp. 197-202)