It is obvious that cheeseburger is a generic term. Not so obvious is that it wasn’t always necessarily generic. In fact the word cheeseburger was once registered as a trademark!
The history of hamburgers is a subject unto itself, but you can find good explanations of how the hamburger came to be from many sources on the web or in books. Suffice it to say that this history may stretch as far back as 1885. Then, it wasn’t until at least the 1920s before this unusual sandwich became a hit. I provide a bit more of the hamburger’s history below.
But, of course, anybody with half a brain would have understood that if a hamburger is delish, a hamburger with cheese is sublime. Apparently, it was not so obvious that melted cheese oozing from between two hamburger buns was just what the mustard ordered (I like mustard on a hamburger!). It took at least 10 to 15 years before it occurred to anyone. After that, of course, many a hamburger joint wanted to be able to lay claim to the idea.
There are, in fact, several claims as to when the first cheeseburger was served, and a couple of different claimants to having trademarked the term. But, as the SlideShare with video presentation below explains, only one claim has actual paperwork to back it up. I’ve provided a transcript for the video, as well, below.
Regardless of its history, cheeseburger today is a fully generic, and it probably would have been trademark victim of genericide even if it had been enforced, which it wasn’t (who knows why?). Today, it would never be enforceable, of course!
Hamburger History and Cheeseburger Trademark Video Transcript
There are several claims as to when the first cheeseburger was served. It may seem strange hat it wasn’t immediately obvious that a slice of melted cheese would go great on top of a hamburger patty, but it took at least 45 years after the first hamburger was served – although accounts vary as to exactly when that occurred – and perhaps as long as 10 to 15 years after they became widely popular in the United States. There are several claimants for the first cheeseburger served, such as at “The Rite Spot” in Pasadena, California, 1926; or Kaelin’s Restaurant in Louisville Kentucky in 1934. But, did you know that the word “cheeseburger” is a trademarked term?
Wait, before you say NO WAY, keep in mind that there was no reason that it shouldn’t be called a “hamburger with cheese” or a “cheese hamburger.” Hamburger started out as Hamburg steak, then became Hamburger steak, and was shortened to just Hamburger. Only later was the hamburger served as a sandwich. Being named after Hamburg, Germany, the word burger did not exist as an independent word. But, since the word ham did exist, many people thought that the term hamburger was a combination the words ham, as in the cured pork ham, and burger, which had no meaning but was assumed to refer to the way the meat was chopped.
Of course, it did not go unnoticed that the meat was not ham, so the term beefburger even appeared. It is not clear at all when the hamburger became just a burger, but since the word burger had been attached to similar creations made with other types of meat, such as lamburger, and then cheeseburger, etc., it was only a matter of time before it became independent to represent the style of sandwich, as such. Still, the word cheeseburger could be interpreted as an enterprising term, if someone had thought it up on the spot, deserving of a bit of ownership.
Saying burger instead of hamburger probably didn’t come into widespread usage until about the 1960’s, although the word cheeseburger existed way before that. It still seems incredible, the way we know the term today, that someone sought to own it, but someone claims to have done just that. Curiously, there is more than one claim for the first trademarking of the word cheeseburger, but the one that is able to be substantiated by an actual application originated in Denver, Colorado, in 1935, and was filed by Louis Ballast, of the Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In.
Ballast was a high-school dropout who, at age twenty, bought the drive-in known then only as “The Barrel,” because of its shape. Ballast was fond of adding all sorts of strange ingredients to hamburgers during off hours, like peanut butter and melted Hershey’s chocolate bars. When he plopped on a slice of, reportedly, American cheese, he finally got it right and he wasted no time in filing his application, which was called an Application and Affidavit for Registration of a Food Trademark, to register his cheeseburger trademark.
Ballast’s son still has the trademark application but it was never enforced. Ballast apparently had no problem letting cheeseburger become a generic term, making his reasons for filing the trademark in the first place a bit obscure. But, he did hang a sign on the Barrel reading “Home Of The Original Cheeseburger.” So, the trademark application may have been his way of meeting any future challenges to his claim of the first cheeseburger.
However, his son said that cheeseburgers became all the rage all over the country soon thereafter and his father did not really know the procedure for enforcing the trademark. The Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In stayed open until 1974, but then became a topless club, and later burned to the ground in 1976. However, a 3-foot granite plaque can be found in its place at 2776 North Speer Drive, Denver, where the Key Bank now stands. Like I said, Ballast wasn’t the only one who claimed to have a trademark on the term. The Steak ‘n Shake restaurant chain claims that Gus Belt applied for a trademark, also n the 1930’s.