A Fresh Take on the Hoagie Origin Story

Hog Island Shipyard, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Far across the low-lying meadows the great fringe of derricks rises against the sky,” wrote Christopher Morley in his love note to Hog Island.

“Past the crumpled ramparts of old Fort Mifflin, motors and trolley cars now go flashing down to the huge new shipyard.” Morley stood in awe of “the marvelous stretch of fifty shipways, each carrying a vessel in course of construction.”

“Hog Island is a poem, a vast bracing chant of manly achievement in every respect,” he wrote. “Nothing less than a “marvelous epic of human achievement.”

[Clarification: women were among the 35,000 employed at Hog Island.]

“Perhaps some day, there will come some poet great enough to tell the drama of Hog Island as it ought to be told,” added Morley. “The men who gritted their teeth and put it through will never tell. They are of the old stalwart breed that works with its hands. As they talk you can divine something of what they endured.”

“I don’t believe there is a more triumphant place on earth than Hog Island these days,” wrote Morley. “Ships are the most expressive creatures of men’s hands . . . it was hard to resist the thought that each of them has a soul of her own and was partaking in the general exultation.”

On August 5, 1918 they christened the first Hog Islander, the Quistconck. The tenth was launched in April 1919, five months after the war ended. Not a single one of the 122 Hog Islanders served in World War I, though many did serve in World War II. Fifty eight of those ships would be lost, many to German submarines.

Even before Hitler declared war on the United States, Germans seized The City of Flint while transporting cargo of tractors, grain and fruit to Britain. After its release, the ship returned to service until January 1943 when it was sunk by the Germans. The vessel’s “amazing career came to an end. . . in the mid-Atlantic,” reported the Inquirer, “when an enemy torpedo ripped into her rusting sides.”

Before dawn on May 21, 1941, midway between Brazil and Africa, another German submarine stopped the Robin Moor. Chief Officer Melvin Mundy of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania insisted the transport ship only had “ordinary merchandise for South African Ports.” But, according to Mundy, German commander Jost Metzler kept saying: ‘You have supplies for my country’s enemy and I must therefore sink you.’”

Metzler gave the Robin Moor twenty minutes. Mundy pleaded for more time to evacuate the passengers, which including a young child and an elderly couple.

“’Well, maybe I’ll give you 30 minutes,” said Metzler.

At 6:32 a.m., the German submarine “fired 33 shells into the Robin Moor from her deck gun. The ship went down in 18 minutes. Then the submarine fired volley after volley from her anti-aircraft guns at floating cargo until it all sank.”

710 North 48th Street, July 2, 1954 (PhillyHistory.org)

The Germans provided the life boats with three days’ worth of food and water. Then, according to Mundy, “the submarine pulled away . . . and disappeared beneath the surface. The sea churned violently, and the boats bobbed in the smoldering wreckage.” Adrift for 13 days until discovered, the 35 passengers and crew were “drenched by torrential rains, scorched by a broiling sun and in constant fear of death.”

So, one can well imagine Philadelphia’s hesitant reaction to The Saturday Evening Post’s article about the submarine as “The Noblest Sandwich of Them All,” published a decade after the war’s end. Celebrating the “submarine” as “a noble edifice” as “the king of all sandwiches?” No thank you.

Sure, submarine sandwiches were available from as many as “4000 places in the East and Midwest.” Some called them heroes, grinders, poor boys, garibaldis, wedges, bombers, zeppelins and rockets, but Americans in no less than 68 out of 100 cities knew them as “submarines.”

Not in Philadelphia.

For good reason, Philadelphians, most especially the 35,000 who had worked at Hog Island, as well as their friends, families and colleagues, harbored no interest in celebrating the submarine. They had their own unique name for America’s sandwich of choice: the hoggie, or as everyone would eventually spell it—and say it—the hoagie.

Sometimes victory comes in unexpected packages.

[Sources: Christopher Morley, Travels in Philadelphia (David McKay, 1920); “City of Flint Sunk by Sub; 17 Are Lost,” Inquirer, March 21, 1943; “All Robin Moor Victims Saved; Tell of Sinking,” Inquirer, June 17, 1941; “Robin Moor Survivors Tell Story of Suffering,” Inquirer, June 14, 1941; Amanda Schaffer, “Lost at Sea on the Brink of the Second World War,” The New Yorker, May 28, 1916; Food Timeline: sandwiches; Edwin Eames and Howard Robboy, The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context, American Speech, Vol. 42, no. 4 (Dec., 1967)].

Also see: The Hoagie is Venerable (but not as historic as we’ve been led to believe.

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