Our Rich History: White Castle — porcelain buildings, square burgers, fair-‘n-square employee benefits

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to NKyTribune

Part 4 of an occasional series about fast food restaurants

Admit it. Sometimes you just get that craving for little square White Castle hamburgers. In the 2004 comedy, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, a film officially licensed by White Castle, two guys whose lives appear to be falling apart smoke some marijuana and get the “munchies.” Their adventures on the way to and from White Castle prove outrageous.

Sherman Porter and his Hamburger Wagon, Miamisburg, OH. (SOURCE: Renee Wilde, “The Hamburger Wagon, serving up history on a bun,” WOSU Public Media, September 9, 2022.)

However, White Castle is more than the little square burgers that you “buy by the sack” in sometimes late-night cravings. In fact, I always remember my father stating that White Castle was a national innovator in paying its employees a fair wage and in giving them medical, profit-sharing, and other benefits.

Occasionally when I was growing up, dad would bring home a sack of White Castles. Later, when I was attending graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, I would return the favor, sometimes stopping by White Castle on Pike Street in Covington to bring my parents hamburgers for a late-afternoon snack. By the time I reached home not very far away, my car smelled like White Castle burgers.

I’ve tried White Castle imitators over the years. For a short time, I lived in Georgia, where I experimented with Krystal hamburgers several times. They didn’t suit me, however, so I found myself buying frozen White Castles (by the box) at the local grocery store.

In the late 1800s, most people ate lunch (often called “dinner” at that time) at home, particularly those who lived above family businesses or at least within a short walking distance of their homes. However, as large factories began to pop up in urban areas, and as factory employees began traveling greater distances to work by streetcars and other means, eating lunch at home was no longer an option. Further, some of the earlier factories did not have lunchrooms or cafeterias and offered little time for lunch.

In response to the demand for quick, affordable lunchtime food, enterprising businesses set up “lunch wagons” and “lunch carts” each day near the factories. Some of these evolved into small portable buildings that could be erected on plots of leased land, and moved if their lease was not renewed. Others became more permanent diners.

White Castle, 714 Walnut St., Cincinnati, OH. (Provided)

The lunch wagons and diners were certainly preferable — from an employer’s standpoint — to having employees wander off to nearby cafes. Before nationwide Prohibition closed down bars in 1920, cafes often provided “free lunch” items like sausages, pretzels, and peanuts in exchange for patrons buying alcoholic beverages.

In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, “hamburger sandwiches” became popular throughout the United States, especially at fairs and amusement areas. Although many stories exist claiming that a particular person “invented” the American hamburger, it is unlikely that any one individual did so. The American hamburger — a ground beef patty grilled and then put between two slices of bread (and later between two halves of a bun) — became ubiquitous at concessions, lunch wagons, diners, and restaurants.

One of the oldest and most famous “hamburger stands” is the Hamburger Wagon of Miamisburg, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. There, in 1913, Sherman “Cocky” Porter volunteered to serve flood refugees food, a family hamburger recipe. After the flood, he opened the Hamburger Wagon, which is still in business today.

During Prohibition (1920–1933), which coincided with the Great Depression, hamburger chains began to appear across the United States. One of the first was White Castle. After working for others as a cook, Walter “Walt” Anderson opened his own hamburger stand in Wichita, Kansas in a “remodeled streetcar” (E. W. Ingram, Sr., “All This from a 5-Cent Hamburger!” The Story of the White Castle System, p. 10).

In 1921, in partnership with Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, Walt Anderson opened the first White Castle in Wichita. Two years later, in 1923, they began expanding to other cities. They chose the name, as Ingram notes, “because ‘White’ signifies purity and cleanliness and ‘Castle’ represents strength, permanence and stability. The building itself was of cement block construction, designed with battlements and a turret in keeping with the Castle idea” (Ingram, p. 10).

White Castle, 825 Madison Avenue, Covington, KY. Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views)

Later, they sheathed their buildings with porcelain enamel. In 1928, in keeping with the model of leasing land, they designed and patented “a movable all-metal building, the structural framework of which was cold-rolled steel channels of special design, to which could be attached porcelain enamel panels on the outside in such a way that no water could penetrate. The lining on the inside was of porcelain enamel sheets, and the space between the wall was filled with rock wool for insulation” (Ingram, p. 19).

In 1927, White Castle Systems expanded east of the Mississippi River to Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. By 1928–29, there were six White Castle locations in Cincinnati: 714 Walnut; 600 Broadway; 1807 Race; 1604 Main; 934 Freeman Avenue; and 2415 Gilbert Avenue (Williams; Cincinnati Directory, 1928–29).

The first White Castle in Northern Kentucky opened at 825 Madison Avenue in Covington in May 1930. The second location in Covington, at 441 Pike Street, opened soon thereafter, in August 1930.

White Castle Systems was an early innovator of employee benefits. As Ingram stated in his history, he began at a time when “the code in the restaurant industry in dealing with employees was ‘Treat ‘em rough and keep ‘em in ignorance.’” However, Ingram believed in the opposite, “that to be successful we must be of value both to our customers and to those who give their time to the business.” (Ingram, p. 23).

White Castle, 441 Pike Street, Covington, KY. (Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views)

As Ingram further related, “Years before lawmakers thought of old-age benefits and other security measures, and before fringe benefits of various kinds were being demanded in labor contracts, the White Castle System was practicing the principle of sharing as a natural part of the spirit of mutual helpfulness” (p. 23.) The restaurant chain instituted a bonus plan in 1924, group life insurance in 1927, a Pension Trust in 1943, and also paid employee hospitalization insurance.

On Christmas Day in 1929, a Cincinnati Post article announced that “Each of the 30 Cincinnati employees of the White Castle System . . . will receive $158.48 as his portion of the company’s 1929 profit-sharing plan” (“Profits Shared: White Castle Employees Are Remembered,” Cincinnati Post, December 25, 1929, p. 4).

Hearing about White Castle’s fair and square employee benefits from my father, and confirming it in my own research, I proudly proclaim that I often go out of my way—past giant corporate fast food chains that pay their employees little — to buy those little square hamburgers with the distinctive smell and taste.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He also serves as Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment). For more information see https://orvillelearning.org/

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