Hot Dogs on Memorial Day, Oscar Mayer Has a Way…

Countless Oscar Mayer wieners will be grilled this Memorial Day weekend, though there’s no guarantee that they’ll be prepared as a Chicago style hot dog of course. Oscar Mayer – which originated in Chicago – was a pioneering master at advertising and brand identity. Countless millions consume their hot dogs, sausages, bacon and deli meats. Indeed, Oscar Mayer’s fame came together at the crossroads of the two major Chicago industries of advertising and meatpacking.

Oscar Mayer logo Chicago history

Hog Butcher for the World

We all know how Chicago once had a truly massive meat-packing industry. The meatpacking industry had an enormous impact on Chicago’s economic, environmental and cultural traditions. It also, unsurprisingly, created some of the most lasting brand names in Chicago history. Early titans of the stock yards like Armour and Swift left large legacies in Chicago. In fact, you can still see the original Armour Institute Building when driving in on I-94 or riding along on the Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour (it’s the giant red brick building just north of 35th in Bronzeville). These big meatpacking companies had their heydays before the golden age of radio and TV advertising, in contrast to their later rival Oscar Mayer.

history of chicago transportation union stock yards railroads
The railroads brought heavy industry, like the Union Stock Yards, to Chicago. Image credit: Wikimedia

Oscar Mayer himself was a German immigrant. He came to the United States as a child, whereupon his family settled in Detroit. He started working as a butcher’s assistant there at the ripe old age of 14. According to the official corporate history, young Oscar was “eager to learn the business” and moved to the meatpacking capital of the word — Chicago. Here he settled in for a six-year stint working at Armour & Co. Mayer’s brother Gottfried was still in Germany and went to Nuremburg to hone his sausage-making skills before coming to Chicago. Gottfried, Oscar and their other brother Max started making primarily bockwurst, liverwurst and weisswurst  as Oscar Mayer and Company in 1883.

Upon prospering, Oscar built a two-story building at 1241 N. Sedgwick, in the neighborhood now called Old Town. The business was downstairs and Oscar’s family lived upstairs. (Unfortunately the original building was long ago torn down.) Mayer prospered, and by the end of the century the company had more than forty employees.

Interestingly, Oscar Mayer ends up being a relatively rare example of a big Chicago company on the North Side. Historically speaking, I’d expect to see meatpacking on the South Side either in or nearby the Union Stock Yards. The huge German population in Lincoln Park and Lakeview likely lured the Mayers north.

Oscar Mayer Drives Into Advertising History

I could delve into the meaty history of the Mayer Brothers’ company: their devotion to food sanitation, horse-drawn cart delivery service, their relocation north to Madison, etc. etc. I know where the meat is in this particular sandwich, however. You wanna hear about a certain automobile and some famously catchy TV jingles. Who am I to stand in your way?

Oscar Mayer historic wienermobile
Seriously…this thing is so weird. Image via Wikimedia.

The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile first took to the fair streets of Chicago in 1936. The Wienermobile is, to put it lightly, weird. Its novelty is lost on everyone who grew up with it (which is to say all of us). Imagine a life where you’d never heard of or seen such a thing before, and then… a car shaped like a terrifyingly large hot dog comes motoring down the road. The sight is just supremely strange. I would probably drop some choice expletives out of pure surprise. (Personal aside, I will probably always associate the Wienermobile with Presidential assassinations because of the exceedingly odd collection of the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.) Regardless of its strange nature (or perhaps because of it), the Wienermobile is the kind of kitschy pop culture icon that corporate marketing executives dream of.

Those Freaking Songs

Vehicular advertising was apparently not enough for the ad team at Oscar Mayer. They also created two of the most lasting jingles in advertising’s history. The first, the “Wiener Song” from the early 60s, has always struck me as a rather sad and desperate cry for help.

I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner
That is what I truly wish to be
Cause if I were a Oscar Mayer weiner
Everyone would be in love
Oh everyone would be in love
Everyone would be in love with me

These lyrics are almost distressingly lonely, even when sung from the mouths of babes. Just how bad does your life have to be for you to dream that you’d be more loved if you were a hot dog? The idea haunts me.

Their other famous jingle, the bologna song, comes from a more solid play. It’s just this adorable kid and his cute song about his sandwich. Nothing haunting here at all. Though, I guess, maybe don’t name your food. It will make eating it all the more difficult.

Both of theses ads are a prime example of the association principle, whereby an advertiser tries to draw a connection between their product or brand and a value or emotion. To wit, bologna sausage is not inherently cute or charming. Personally, I find it pretty revolting (or at least I did as a child). However, some deep part of my lizard brain will always sing about it because this jingle made the association concrete.

These ad campaigns are just a taste the countless deviously memorable ads created by Chicago-based firms like Leo Burnett. Look for more info about that in a future blog post from Chicago Detours…

Back in Chicago

Oscar Mayer moved their operations across the state line in Madison in 1919 despite Chicago’s meat-packing prowess and transportation bonafides. (Traitors!) For a long time you could only sort of claim that Oscar Mayer was a Chicago brand. These days, thanks to a series of buyouts and mergers, Oscar Mayer is back in sweet home Chicago.

The brand is part of the Kraft Heinz conglomerate, which is headquartered in the Aon Center right in downtown Chicago. You can join our Architecture Tour for Design Lovers to learn more about their HQ. Oscar Mayer has come a long way from the grime of the old stock yards to the soaring offices of a skyscraper. Yet I’d wager there’s quite a few Chicago companies that have made similar journeys. Their relocation to downtown Chicago from the suburbs is just the latest example of Oscar Mayer exemplifying the big trends in Chicago business.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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