The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921

The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921

The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921

The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921


Vegetarianism has been practiced in the United States since the country's founding, yet the early years of the movement have been woefully misunderstood and understudied. Through the Civil War, the vegetarian movement focused on social and political reform, but by the late nineteenth century, the movement became a path for personal strength and success in a newly individualistic, consumption-driven economy. This development led to greater expansion and acceptance of vegetarianism in mainstream society. So argues Adam D. Shprintzen in his lively history of early American vegetarianism and social reform. From Bible Christians to Grahamites, the American Vegetarian Society to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, Shprintzen explores the diverse proponents of reform-motivated vegetarianism and explains how each of these groups used diet as a response to changing social and political conditions.
By examining the advocates of vegetarianism, including institutions, organizations, activists, and publications, Shprintzen explores how an idea grew into a nationwide community united not only by diet but also by broader goals of social reform.


We are urged to write a history of Vegetarianism.—Henry S. Clubb,
“History of Vegetarianism: Chapter 1,”
Vegetarian Magazine (October 1907)

In December 1988, Vegetarian Times—a popular national magazine devoted to vegetarian living, food, and culture—reflected on the growth of vegetarianism in the United States. The cover of the magazine noted the increasing number of vegetarian celebrities, including former Beatle Paul McCartney, “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, teen heartthrob River Phoenix, and children’s television icon Fred Rogers. The issue included a reflection on the comparative history of the vegetarian movement in Great Britain and the United States.

The article’s author lauded British vegetarianism, noting that it had a longer and more prominent history than its U.S. counterpart. The article concluded, however, that it was ultimately unfair to compare the history of vegetarianism in the two countries because “few Americans have ever been inspired to vegetarianism by any national society.” Two years later the magazine devoted an entire issue to celebrating “how far we have come but also to put[ting] the success of the vegetarian ‘movement’ in some sort of historical and social context.” The issue only covered developments in American vegetarianism starting in the 1970s, thus ignoring the vast majority of the movement’s history in the United States.

Abstention from meat became a vital ideological and political movement in the United States in the early nineteenth century. But all too often vegetarianism has been presented—even by its proponents—as a product of twentieth-century modernism, reflecting a rise in ethical consumer awareness. Dietary choices regarding meat consumption were, in fact, connected with larger nutritional, social, and individual goals for vegetarian reformers in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. At the center of the relationship between food choices and political ambitions surrounding meat abstention was the organized vegetarian movement, which formulated and shifted significantly during this period.

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