Texas has an alleged “Home of the Hamburger” (Athens) and the Cheeseburger Capital of Texas (Friona), but where and when was the cheeseburger invented? There is no doubt that cheese was added to hamburgers in the 1920s-1930s; “cheeseburgers” were popular in Corpus Christi by at least 1936.
Pasadena, California claims that Lionel Sternberger served the first cheeseburger at the Rite Spot in 1924, although documentation is lacking. “Inaugurating the new CHEESEBURGER SANDWICH” was in a January 1932 advertisement from Dave’s Hamburger Store of San Luis Obispo, California. The now-closed Kaetlin’s Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, had claimed that it had invented the cheeseburger when the restaurant opened in 1934, but this was at least two years after California.
[This entry includes research from Bill Mullins of the American Dialect Society listserv.]
A cheeseburger is a hamburger which additionally contains a slice of cheese. It is not uncommon for larger cheeseburgers (such as a cheeseburger constructed with two large hamburger patties) to have more than one cheese slice. As a variant, melted or grated cheese is occasionally used in place of, or in addition to, sliced cheese. The cheese is usually added a short time before the hamburger finishes cooking to allow the cheese to melt and come up to the same temperature as the meat.
In 1924, Lionel Sternberger grilled the first cheeseburger in Pasadena, California. When Sternberger died in 1964, Time magazine noted in its February 7 issue that:
“ …at the hungry age of 16, [Sternberger] experimentally dropped a slab of American cheese on a sizzling hamburger while helping out at his father’s sandwich shop in Pasadena, thereby inventing the cheeseburger… ”
Other places have claimed the invention of the cheeseburger as part of their local legend. Louisville, Kentucky-based Kaelin’s Restaurant has claimed to invent the cheeseburger in 1934. The following year, the mark for the name “cheeseburger” was awarded to Louis Ballast of the Humpty Dumpty Drive-In in Denver, Colorado.
30 July 1925, Oakland (CA) Tribune, pg. 27?, col. 2:
Venice is a cosmopolitan city, every kind of hot dog, weenie, hamburger and cheese sandwich is found here in great quantities and they leave them hang around the beaches without any muzzles on or anything, just like the good old days before the prohibition law only here in Venice their life is shorter and sweeter than in Oakland.
12 August 1926, Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner, pg. 7, col. 4:
Heinie, “Hot Dog” Man,
Now Has Sandwiches
Heinie, for years known as “the hot dog man,” has now acquired the sandwich and lunch counter at Lagoon and is now in a position to serve his patrons in very short order. Heinie’s special is a combination cheese and hamburger sandwich. “Just try it—it is a gustatory knockout.” Other snappy, tasty items include toasted cheese sandwich, ham sandwich, hamburger plain, coffee, milk
or buttermilk, and delicious cakes and pastry. Heinie’s two stand are located just across the midway from the northeast corner of the dance hall.
Los Angeles Public Library menu collection
4922 South Figueroa, Los Angeles, CA,
1928 [This date might not be accurate. It is not on the menu—ed.]
Cheeseburger on bun...15 cents
Genuine Denver Sandwich...25 cents
American Cheese on bun...15 cents
15 January 1932, San Luis Obispo (CA) Daily Telegram, pg. 8, col. 5 ad:
Inaugurating the new
(Dave’s Hamburger Store.—ed.)
23 August 1933, Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier, pg. 3, col. 5:
Ladies were in charge of the Waterloo Junior Chamber of Commerce picnic Tuesday evening at Falls Avenue pool and the menu was reported by numerous members as being far above the usual hamburger and cheese sandwich fare at strictly stag parties.
August 1935, Soda Fountain (NY, NY), pg. 27, col. 1:
“Hamburger-Cheese Buns”...Jersey City “Cheese Hamburger”...
12 April 1936, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), pg. 14, col. 5 ad:
HAM or HAMBURGER with CHEESE 25
24 April 1936, Ada (OK) Evening News, pg. 4, col. 7 ad:
30 September 1936, Oakland (CA) Tribune, pg. 32, col. 3:
Glancing up from the Cheeseburger she was preparing, this 1936 Cinderella gave him a wide grin.
1 October 1936, Modesto (CA) Bee, pg. 5, col. 1 ad:
24 October 1936, San Antonio (TX) Light, pg. 1, col. 1:
Ivan Stenberg and the missus, back from Corpus Christi, report that the natives of that city consume in some quantities a food known as Cheeseburgers.
2 May 1937, New York (NY) Herald Tribune, This Week magazine, pg. 18, col. 1:
Rise of the HAMBURGER
All the once lowly burgers—ham, crab, cheese and lamb—are in the Blue Book now. They appear in company with both cocktails and coffee
by Fredrika Borchard
There are hamburgers and cheeseburgers and lamburgers, and half a dozen more.
(Recipes for Hamburgers, Lamburgers, Craburgers, and Liverburgers are on page 21. The following is from a column one box on page 21—ed.)
Cheeseburger, codburger, hamburger—with ham—and burgers which aren’t burgers at all but delectable appetizers! You can find how to make and to serve them in our booklet, “More Burgers.” Send a three-cent stamp…
27 May 1937, Sheboygan (WI) Press, pg. 10, col. 2:
There are 200 places on the grounds to eat anything from “cheeseburgers” to 10-course dinners,...
(Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition—ed.)
29 December 1937, Oakland (CA) Tribune, pg. 18, col. 8:
Right now I’m thinking of “Cheeseburgers” and other “bun” sandwiches, and to help keep things on a merry note.
13 July 1938, Elyria (OH) Chronicle-Telegram, pg. 9, col. 3:
Hamburgers are the specialty of the Q-P but one can also purchase a DeLux Hamburg and Cheese, Toasted Cheese, American Cheese, Fried Ham and Pork Tenderloin sandwiches, not to mention pie and beverages.
3 December 1938, Washington (DC) Post, pg. X18:
In production was Walter Wanger’s “Stagecoach” and necessary was some stupendous scenery, unmarred by filling stations, concrete highways and cheeseburger stands.
9 December 1938, San Antonio (TX) Express, pg. 8, col. 4:
For a hamburger sandwich par excellence—and the most successful of parties—all that one needs is chopped beef, picnic buns, and a generous loaf of American cheese. Pickles and other condiments add the finishing touches.
The super cheese and hamburger sandwich is as easy to prepare as it is satisfying to the inner man. (Col. 5—ed.) Simply slice picnic buns, grill hamburger patties and place on half bun which has been buttered and toasted. Place a generous slice of American cheese on the other half bun, place it under the broiler until the cheese has melted to a delicate brown perfection. Serve buns open-face or sandwich style. To this happy combination of chopped steak and American cheese, some guests may prefer to add the benison of sliced onion, piccadilli, or chili sauce. It is well to have a variety of such spicy additions at hand, so that each guest may invent new combinations to please his palate.
Season the ground beef with salt and pepper and form it into round flat cakes. Fry them on both sides until done. Split the buns, toast them and cover the upper half of each bun with a slice of cheese. Place them under low broiler heat until the cheese is melted. Cover with a hot hamburger, then with another toasted half of bun. Serve hot, with sliced dill pickles.
4 February 1964, Pasadena (CA) Star-News, pg. A2, col. 1:
As a takeoff on his own name and also the word hamburger, Sternberger invented the cheeseburger.
22 September 1968, Charleston (WV) Sunday Gazette-Mail, magazine, pg. 20, col. 2:
And Lionel Sternberger wasn’t just any old Lionel Sternberger, he was the Lionel Sternberger who invented the cheeseburger. (Well, somebody had to invent the cheeseburger. Those things don’t just happen by themselves, you know.)
26 October 1968, Pasadena (CA) Independent Star-News, “Restaurateur Sternberger’s Services Set,” pg. 22, col. 8:
Mr. (Van H.—ed.) Sternberger’s twin brother, Lionel L. Sternberger, was the originator of the cheeseburger in 1924. The brothers were co-owners of their restaurant chain until Lionel’s death in 1964. Van Sternberger was active in the business until his death Wednesday.
22 May 1997, Lake Park (Iowa) News, pg. 10 ad:
1924 California grill chef Lionel Sternberger concocts the first “cheese hamburger” in Pasadena, California at The Rite Spot restaurant.
Cheeseburger is the best. Today while strolling at a mall I was fascinated with this cheese top burger