The History of Vegetarianism in America
A Work in Progress
Vegetarian America: A History. Karen Iacobbo and Michael
Iacobbo. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004.
Karen and Michael Iacobbo have done a marvelous job at assembling the
evidence for the history of vegetarianism in America. The footnotes
alone make the book worth buying and reading. They cover everything from
Benjamin Franklin, the Dorrelites, the Bible Christian Church, Sylvester
Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, and other 18th and 19th
century manifestations, all the way down to People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals.
This book is both indispensable for those interested in the subject
and at the same time flawed. It's indispensable because there
really is no other book which really covers this subject. Their
coverage of the history prior to the American Civil War is strong. But
overall, the book gives the strong impression of being rushed into
print. I donít know who is responsible for this, though I suspect it
is not the authors. It looks like the publishers didnít really bother
to improve the book, because the book really falls down on things that
even a publisher totally ignorant of vegetarianism should be able to do
-- like proofread the book.
This in fact the first major problem with the book: it seems highly
unlikely that anyone actually proofed it. There are typos and awkward
sentences throughout the book. For example, we find a sentence with the
phrase "(ital)" inserted -- evidently an instruction to
italicize a passage. How could you read such a sentence and not see a
problem? In another place, we have an incomplete sentence. There are
numerous awkward constructions such as these two sentences, which follow
a picture of two bikini-clad PETA activists giving out vegetarian hot
dogs in front of the Rhode Island State House:
"Karina" has starred in an adult film and used her
earnings to help animals. This does not please all.
Thereís no explanation of why the name "Karina" is in
quotes, or who was not pleased, or why they were not pleased. These
sorts of constructions occur all the time throughout the book.
Moreover, a lot of the history is just strung together as one
anecdote after another; there is not much analysis here or any attempt
to relate what all this is a history of. As a writer, I can say that
this is typical of the kinds of things that slip into early drafts which
havenít been adequately proofed. What it seems like we have is not a
complete book but a draft which the publisher has hurried into print.
There is second major problem, which also strongly suggests the book
was rushed. While the first half of the book seems fairly well
researched, in the second half there is almost no discussion of the
Seventh-day Adventists. The SDAs are mentioned, but never really
discussed, in this book -- a major omission.
The Seventh-day Adventists were a major force, perhaps the
major force, in American vegetarianism between about 1870 and 1970. To
give you an idea of the importance of the SDAs, I did some research on
the Vegetarian Society of D. C. (the oldest vegetarian organization in
the U. S.). Despite the fact that the founder of the VSDC was not an SDA
(and was still active in the organization up to at least 1960), prior to
1972 this group was largely run by Seventh-day Adventists. This suggests
to me that the "vegetarian movement" during this period was
heavily dependent on the SDAs, perhaps in fact was largely an SDA
phenomenon. Iíd like to hear more about this group and their
involvement in promoting vegetarianism, yet they are given short shrift
in the book, basically just a few pages about Ellen White and a brief
mention of Mervyn Hardinge in a different context.
And while John Harvey Kellogg is discussed at some length, what about
the split between John Harvey Kellogg and the SDAs? Kellogg evidently
started out as an SDA but wrote a book which Ellen White disapproved of.
What was this all about? Did this impact vegetarianism, and if so, how?
Thereís no mention of this at all. Inquiring minds want to know!
The impression that I get is that the authors launched out on their
project, got through about the American Civil War, and then got a note
from their publisher saying "give us the manuscript in a month or
find another publisher." The authors then hurriedly threw together
everything from the Civil War onward, basically what they could quickly
uncover about Ellen White and then the period from the 1970's forward,
which the authors actually lived through and therefore could pretty much
do from memory.
In the final chapter, "Vegetarianism has arrived," the book
breaks down completely. Much of this chapter reads like a piece of PETA
propaganda, with glowing photographs of Ingrid Newkirk and Bruce
Friedrich, and focuses largely on various media exploits, as if that
explains everything that happened or could happen. They also
incongruously discuss Pamela Rice, Sue Havala Hobbs, and Howard Lyman,
as if all of these form part of one big happy family.
These figures however represent totally different approaches
and organizations. A key element which the Iacobbos have missed is the
tension between the animal rights activists and the traditional
vegetarian groups. Historically, these groups have completely different
origins -- the one in animal protection groups, the other in
healthy-eating groups. There is a completely different style,
self-image, and method of presentation for the two groups as well. This
is evident to anyone who goes to an NAVS Summerfest and any animal
rights conference -- you immediately detect the difference between the
chatty and laid-back vegetarians and the energetic and proselytizing
animal rights activists. Surely this is a key element of modern
vegetarian history, one deserving substantial discussion.
To draw a straight line between Sylvester Graham and Ingrid Newkirk
really is a complete distortion. Graham (and Kellogg, too) promoted
vegetarianism mostly for health reasons, opposed alcohol, and opposed
masturbation, whereas PETA promotes vegetarianism becuase of animal
rights, has a sexually provocative "Iíd rather go naked than wear
fur" campaign, and has put out some "Got Beer?" ads, a
spoof on the "Got Milk?" slogan of the dairy industry.
PETA is considerably more controversial even among vegetarians and
animal rights activists than the writers let on. There is no mention in
the book of PETAís campaign, "Iíd rather go naked than wear
fur." There is no mention of PETAís publicity and other support
for illegal "Animal Liberation Front" type activities. PETA is
a polarizing group, which whips up enthusiasm among animal rights
supporters with its media campaigns, but which is widely ridiculed by
nonvegetarians (and even many vegetarians). Alas, this piece of history
is also part of our present, too controversial to come to terms with
And the idea that vegetarianism has "arrived" in the period
from 1984 to 2004 is, quite frankly, delusional. We might be on the
verge of some dramatic animal rights breakthrough, but weíve been
waiting for this breakthrough for at least a decade. It would be fair to
say that significant progress has been made; if I go to the grocery
store, it is easier to get some vegetarian products like tofu and tempeh.
But by every objective measure, vegetarianism hasnít made much of an
imprint on the public.
Meat-eating has actually increased in recent years, and ideas
about health have retreated. The "obesity epidemic," widely
reported in the media during this period, actually got worse, despite
much media attention and public wringing of hands. Polls show that the
percentage of the public which is vegetarian is at best perhaps 2 or 3%
of the general population, about the same number (or less) than that
claimed during the 1970's and 1980's.
If the public stereotype of the vegetarian in the 1970's was the
laid-back hippy munching on sprouts, the stereotype today is one of the
angry and self-righteous vegan activist. It would be more accurate to
say that the strident efforts to promote vegetarianism have become part
of the national "culture wars" of the last few decades -- with
the issue of veganism becoming a sort of minor culture war all on its
own, along with the debates on abortion and homosexuality. It is always
hard to assess the real impact of contemporary events, we are often too
close to them and the future which might provide the context for
assessing this impact is still unknown.
I donít really fault the authors here, except perhaps in their
choice of a publisher. If the book had been given more time, they could
have gotten more into the Seventh-day Adventists, and a more nuanced
history of the movement from the 1970's forward could have emerged. They
might have given due consideration to the strong influence of animal
rights, but also explain what a radical departure this was from the
traditional vegetarian organizations -- which are still around, and many
of whose members disapprove of the way the animal rights agenda has
Given more time, they could have also developed the one very
interesting historical dynamic which they do trace -- the relationship
between vegetarianism and veganism. If the original meaning of
vegetarianism was veganism (as they assert at one point), then how did
vegetarianism become enshrined as "the abstinence from meat, fish,
or fowl, with or without the addition of dairy products and eggs"?
What exactly is going on here?
Clearly much of the modern "movement" wants to define
vegetarianism, retroactively, as veganism. The authorsí conflation of
vegetarianism with veganism looks like a way to accommodate contemporary
opinion rather than objectively look at history. The definition of
vegetarianism as allowing dairy products and eggs has been dominant
since the 19th century both in England and America. It is
dominant even today, even in groups led by vegans. Maybe originally
vegetarianism really was veganism, but if so, it got lost along the way.
Again, inquiring minds want to know.
The Iacobbos seemed to have assembled about half, perhaps even
two-thirds, of the material needed to write the definitive account of
vegetarianism in America. For reasons unknown to anyone except the
authors and their publishers, they never quite finished.
March 12, 2008