Digital Scanning Has Not Preserved Many Photos of the Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Contest Held Every July Fourth. However, Modern Photos Abound for This Popular Celebration.
Nathan’s Hotdogs has hosted its annual Fourth of July hotdog eating contest for 96 years, and on July 4th, 2012, it will proudly host number 97. But while there are countless photos of recent years with headline-grabbing competitors like Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut, very few photos from contests before 2000 seem to have survived. Either nobody took them, or more likely they were never preserved with digital scanning. However, digital conversion has given us a window into the history of the famous Coney Island hotdog shop that has slowly climbed from its humble beginnings to become a famous international chain delivering unhealthy hotdogs and delicious fake cheese to eager eaters everywhere.
The story, which those who first popularized it have since discredited as a fabrication, claims the hotdog eating competition began with an argument about patriotism. Supposedly, in 1916 the anniversary of the country’s founding led four new immigrants standing outside Nathan’s original frankfurter stand on Coney Island to begin boasting about who was more patriotic. The story goes that Nathan proposed the competition as a way to settle the argument, which he then held every year thereafter, as crowds and popularity increased. It moved around some over the years, even being held once under the Brooklyn Bridge. However, it’s been at the same Coney Island site since the 1970s and the scene there remains one of immense crowds and hot, happy chaos to this day.
Photographs of this slightly gross competition, which has drawn almost two million television viewers in recent years, stir something faintly patriotic in onlookers. Even though we know that hotdogs are unhealthy, and consuming over 60 of them in a row is even more so, competitive eating of one of America’s few “American” foods – even one we borrowed from Europe like so many others – just feels right on the Fourth of July. Attending the slightly claustrophobic competition itself or just watching it before going out for the day, we’re given an experience that fits perfectly with the contemporary nature of how we celebrate the country’s founding: food, friends, and being outdoors.
Old photos of Nathan’s hotdog shop, preserved with digital scanning, contribute to the feeling that this competition fits so well on the Fourth. The stand is something of an icon for New York, and as a nearly century-old fixture of Coney Island, it holds an important place in popular imagination. A lot has happened on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenue, from famous scenes in the movie The Warriors to Chestnut reclaiming the belt for the United States just a few years ago, to countless other New York moments. It’s like the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day, only somehow even more patriotic and symbolic.
So it’s somewhat unfortunate that digital scanning has not been able to provide us with many photos of this event from our history. But as long as people keep barbequing in the afternoon and watching the Nathan’s contest on TV in the mornings, and as long as the now immensely-wealthy company continues to be profitable, the event will remain a part of our yearly celebrations, as well as a great way to kick off the day no matter what else you have planned.