Vegetarianism, which has roots going back to antiquity, surfaced in western countries during the mid-nineteenth century. The American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850, just a few years after the word “vegetarian” was coined. After establishing a chapter in New York in 1852, the society planned to hold its annual dinner at the Chinese Assembly Rooms, a large hall at 539 Broadway, as shown by this admission ticket.3
Despite having distributed the tickets, the dinner in 1852 was cancelled. With their first meeting reduced to a series of speeches, the organizers put a good face on the situation, promising that the event would be a “feast of reason.” Such pronouncements only invited ridicule by the newspapermen who enjoyed mocking the vegetarians. The New York Times reported that the philosophical repast “was not as inviting as the pumpkin pies, melons, peaches, pears, grapes and apples that were first offered, if we may judge by the scant attendance." In fact, only fifty people attended. Things went much better the following year when newspaper editor Horace Greeley hosted the annual affair. This dinner attracted about 300 socialists, abolitionists, temperance advocates, and other antebellum reformers. Two-thirds of the attendees were women, including the suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Amelia Bloomer.
The dinner in 1853 featured tomato and rice soup, Graham bread, fruited bread, mixed-fruit cake, wheat cakes, corn blanc mange, apple biscuits, molded rice, molded farina, and molded wheat grits. There were two vegetables—baked sweet potatoes and stewed squash with cream—and a wide variety of fruit. The desserts included pumpkin pie, baked apples, coconut custard, and ice cream. Although the banquet was seemingly successful, it marked the end of the “first wave” of vegetarianism. After inching forward for two decades in the United States, the vegetarian movement went into hibernation, not to reawaken until the end of the century.4
In 1904, people adopted a plant-based diet based on their religious beliefs, health issues, or opposition to the killing of animals, a sentiment reflected by Goldsmith’s poem. Today, the reasons for vegetarianism have expanded to include ethical concerns related to the mass consumption of meat, such as the treatment of animals in factory farms, environmental damage, and the exacerbation of world hunger.
1. Christian author Ellen G. White (1827-1915) summarized the pro-grain, anti-meat beliefs of the church, writing that “grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables constitute the diet chosen for us by our Creator.” She also believed that “a religious life can be more successfully gained and maintained if meat is discarded, for this diet stimulates into intense activity lustful propensities, and enfeebles the moral and spiritual nature.”
4. Karen Iacobbo, Vegetarian America: A History, 2004.
5. Edward Fulton, Substitutes for Flesh Foods: Vegetarian Cook Book, 1904.