Most food historians agree that the club sandwich was probably created in the United States during the late 19th/early 20th century. The where & who behind this classic sandwich remains a matter of culinary debate. The most popular theory contends this sandwich originated in men's social clubs, most notably the Saratoga Club in Saratoga, NY.
"Club sandwich ...James Beard, in American Cookery (1972), insists...that the original club sandwiches were made with only two slices of toast...He and others have also cited the alternate name of "clubhouse sandwich," which suggest its origins were in the kitchens that prepared food for men's private social clubs. The first appearance of the club sandwich in print was in Ray L. McCardell's Conversations of a Chorus Girl in 1903, and recipes were printed in Fannie Farmer's "Boston Cooking-School Cookbook" in 1906, indicating the item had been popular for some time. A letter to The New York Times (March 9, 1983 p. C4) cited an explanation of the sandwich's origins in a book entitled New York, a Guide to the Empire State (1940, p. 309-310): "In 1894 Richard Canfield...the debonair patron of art, purchased the Saratoga Club [in Saratoga, NY ] to make it a casino...the club sandwich [originated] in its kitchens."
---The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 87)
"Some believe that it [the club sandwich] was originally only a two-decker, perhaps matching the two-decker club cars' running on U.S. railroads from 1895."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 692)
"Origin of the Club Sandwich
It will not surprise any who know how frequently most excellent things are born of necessity to know that the club sandwich originated through accident., A man, we are told, arrived at his home one night after the family and servants had retired, and being hungry, sought the pantry and the ice chest in search of something to eat. There were remnants of many things in the source of supplies, but no one thing that seemed to be present in sufficient abundance to satisfy his appetite. The man wanted, anyway, some toast. So he toasted a couple of slices of bread. Then he looked for butter, and incidentally something to accompany the toast as a relish. Besides the butter he found mayonnaise, two or three slices of cold broiled bacon, and some pieces of cold chicken. These he put together on a slice of toast, and found, in a tomato, a complement for all the ingredients at hand. Then he capped his composition with a second slice of toast, ate, and was happy. The name club was given to it through its adoption by a club of which the originator was a member. To his friends, also members of the club, he spoke of the sandwich, and they had one made, then and there, at the club, as an experiment, and referred to it afterward as the " club sandwich." As such, its name went out to other clubs, restaurants, and individuals, and as such it has remained. At least, this is the story as it is generally told."
---Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes, Marion H. Neil  (p.91-92)
The oldest recipe we have for something called a club sandwich from a American print source was published in 1897. Note: the ingredients are classic BUT it is not the triple-decker item we are currently used to being served (though? Just last year in Michigan we were served In England, beef would have been the meat of choice; in America it would have been ham.
The Coogler Club Sandwich
""Uncle Bud" Kernedle, he who presides over Durand's restaurant during the night hours, has promulgated the Coogler Club sandwich.... The Coogler sandwich consists of a slice of ham, two slices of pickles and a slice of turkey placed between thin pieces of light bread, along with a slice of tongue and an artistic touch of mustard. The sandwich will be copyrighted by the Coogler Club."
---"The Coogler Club Sandwich," Atlanta Constitution, May 30, 1897 (p. 10)
Does your little one go to school and take a lunch? If so, prepare a club sandwich for the luncheon basket. Cut the bread in thin slices, toast and butter. Slice the white meat from a roast chicken, salt, pepper, and add a dash of mustard to suit taste. Put between the layers of chicken a slice of broiled breakfast bacon, not too well done. Lay next to toast two pieces of crisp lettuce, and you have the most palatable as well as healthful thing in the way of sandwiches."
---"Club Sandwich," New York American, April 6, 1898 (p. 10)
"An Atlantic City hotel serves a club sandwich that is composed of broiled ham, cold chicken, lettuce and mayonnaise dressing between thin toast. This is one of the newest evolutions of a dish that promises to rival hash as a general mixing up of foods. The club sandwich began mildly as a sandwich of cold chicken and lettuce; then warm broiled bacon was added, which in turn gave way to ham. The additional of mayonniase dressing with broiled ham seems rather startling, but under the mysterious influence of the toast, presumably, it has obtained a repuation among the hotel's patrons.--(New York Sun)"
---"Club Sandwich Rivals Hash," Boston Daily Globe, August 5, 1900 (p. 33)
Toast a slice of bread evenly and lightly butter it. On one half put, first, a thin slice of bacon which has been broiled till dry and tender, next a slice of the white meat of either turkey or chicken. Over one half of this place a circle cut from a ripe tomato and over the other half a tender leaf of lettuce. Cover these with a gererous layer of mayonnaise, and complete this delicious "whole meal" sandwich with the remaining piece of toast."
---Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book, Isabel Gordon Curtis [Phelps Publishing:New York] 1903 (p. 224)
When did the the "club sandwich" grow from two slices of bread to three? Most of the recipe books from 1940 onward dictate three slices of toast. The earliest recipe we find for the triple decker sandwich was published in 1924:
"Shad-Roe Caviar Club Sandwiches
1 cup shad-roe caviar
3/4 cup minced ham
1/4 cup olives
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Cut three thin slices of white bread. Spread one with shad-roe caviar. Spread another with mayonnaise and sprinkle thickly with minced ham and olives. Butter the remaining slice of bread, then place the slice spread with mayonnaise over the slice spread with the caviar. Put a crisp lettuce leaf on top of each and cover with the plain buttered slice of bread. This makes a sandwich of three layers."
---The New Butterick Cook Book, Flora Rose  (p. 149)
Over the decades there have many variations on this sandwich. Some are for presentation (cutting off the crust, cutting into triangle shapes, garnishes, serving instructions--some cookbooks even have guests making these right at the table!) others tinker with the ingredients:
"Russian Club Sandwiches
Prepare as many slices hot, fresh toast as required. Place a large slice ripe tomato on half the pieces of toast, lay two anchovies on top of tomato, sprinkle a teaspoon finely-chopped celery over, top with mayonnaise dressing, then cover with balance of toast."
---Every Woman's Cook Book, Mrs. Chas. F. Oritz  (p. 592)
Florence A. Cowles' 1929 notes on club sandwiches:
"Who invented and christened the club sandwich? And how, why, when and where? No authoritative answers to these questions are available. One legend has it that a man came home late and hungry from his club one night, raided the ice box and made himself a super-sandwich which he dubbed "club." Another says that the chef of some club made himself a reputation by devising this special type of comestible. Anyway, who cares, and what difference does it make? The club sandwich is here to stay. It is a meal in itself, and a meal which may have highly diversified component parts, as long as the principal specifications of toast, meat and salad ingredients are adhered to. Originally it was constructed on the toppling tower plan, but in any other shape it tastes as good and convenience now dictates a more open formation which may be readily attacked. The club sandwich may consist of anywhere from one to five stories. The foundation is always toast, but the superstructure depends on the maker's fancy--and the materials at hand. The sandwich should be eaten with knife and fork."
---Seven Hundred Sandwiches, Florenece A. Cowles  (p. 184-5)
[NOTE: this book contains 17 different recipes for club sandwiches, including an Open Club Sandwich which is served on three triangular pieces of toast radiating from the center of the plate. Other interesting recipes include the Five Course Sandwich (each layer represents a different course from dessert to appetizer), Picture Club Sandwich (French bread) and Bean Club Sandwich (baked beans, bacon & pickles].
"Russian Club Sandwich
This is a miniature course dinner, beginning with fruit cocktail and ending with a sweet. Cut six thin, round slices of bread, the smallest an inch and a half in diameter and the largest four inches. Lay the largest slice on a plate and spread with jam. On it lay the next largest slice of bread and spread with cream cheese. Then the next slice, buttered, and on this lay bacon or chicken with lettuce and mayonnaise. On the fourth piece of bread lay a slice of tomato and on the fifth a slice of cucumber, each slice of bread being buttered and each vegetable having a bit of mayonnaise and lettuce. On the top piece of bread, unbuttered, lay a slice of banana or other fruit and crown with a stuffed olive. If the layers prove topply they may be secured with toothpicks, but avoid this if possible."
---ibid (p. 188)
The general consensus of several American cookbooks published between 1920-1980 suggest the ingredients of the "classic" triple decker club sandwich are:
Toast (white is most often cited, with crust)
Chicken (cold, sliced)