An ad in Chicago-based Vegetarian Magazine, 1907.
  • An ad in Chicago-based Vegetarian magazine, 1907

Mainstream American vegetarianism, like feminism and folk-rock, seems pretty clearly a product of the late 60s and early 70s. And if you think that, Adam D. Shprintzen wants you to know that you’re off by only a couple of centuries.

More than that, Shprintzen—a former Chicagoan who’s now digital historian at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate—wants you to know that Chicago, the home of Armour and Swift and The Jungle and Adolph Luetgert, the Hog Butcher to the World herself, was in many ways the epicenter of organized vegetarianism in America from the time of the 1893 Columbian Exposition up until at least the 1920s. Then, somehow, both the organization and vegetarianism’s history faded out of sight, leaving the brown-rice crowd of the 1960s and 1970s unaware of a time when vegetarian spots like the Pure Food Lunch Room, the Ionia Vegetarian Restaurant, and Berhalter’s Health Food Store and Bakery dotted the city.

That history comes back to life in Shprintzen’s new book, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement 1817-1921, just published by University of North Carolina Press, which shows how the presumed moral superiority of vegetarianism reflected the moral assumptions of each age and evolved with the times as different reasons to abstain from meat came to the fore.

Michael Gebert: Basically, your book says that vegetarianism not only goes back to the 18th century, but that it parallels a lot of other reform movements of the time—the Great Awakening, abolition, temperance, the first stirrings of feminism. How did vegetarianism fit into that whole picture?

Adam D. Shprintzen: Vegetarianism starts out as this small religious reform group that imports itself to the United States from England, the Bible Christian Church. They come to the U.S. with this idea that religion can actually be understood through science. Which is sort of a remarkable idea through our modern eyes, but wasn’t so strange at the time. Part of their ideology was the notion that vegetarianism—they didn’t use that term at the time—but that abstaining from meat can sit at the center of a total reform ideology. So meat is one way that the body kind of becomes overheated and overexcited and apt to make people act in improper ways. Whether it be violence, or holding slaves, or oppressing women.

Sylvester Graham—who is remembered wrongly as the inventor of the graham cracker, which would have horrified him with all its sugar and other things—spreads these ideas and sort of connects them with the idea of the healthy body and the healthy mind. Again, the idea is that what someone eats can help predict how they will act. So [eliminating] a violent diet will ensure that an individual will not be violent him- or herself.

And that continues up through the establishment of the American Vegetarian Society in the 1850s, which goes out of its way to place vegetarianism at the center of a total reform ideology. So that’s certainly abolitionism, pacifism, women’s suffrage, even the idea of economic equity, that a vegetarianism lifestyle is actually cheaper than meat, but then also that cooking vegetarian meals is a way to liberate individuals from the kitchen, that it’s less time consuming and, again, not dealing with the effects of violence by touching something firsthand that was killed by violent means.

That phase comes to a climax with the Civil War, and at this point vegetarianism is sort of like the 60s and 70s—once the big cause is settled, ironically in part because vegetarians take up arms to fight for it, vegetarianism turns inward and kind of has a few Me Decades.

That’s a great line; I hadn’t thought of that but you’re exactly right. The Civil War becomes the splitting point for vegetarianism in the 19th century. The communal aspect starts to break down, by 1862 people are starting to be less interested in that movement because they’re more concerned about other things like the war and abolition.

Vegetarianism in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s becomes more individualistic. It becomes a means to improve the self, to improve the body. So it becomes connected with physical fitness, the whole “physical culture” movement, and with ideas of personal success. The idea is that vegetarianism, by providing for a healthier body and a healthier mind, is more apt to make someone more financially successful, and they’ll be able to advance socially. This is a very big change from the vegetarianism of the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, which looked at it as a way to help others.

Vegetarian exhibit from England at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
  • Vegetarian exhibit from England at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

And then we come to Chicago. How did Chicago, the center of industrialized meat production in America, become a major center for vegetarianism at the same time?

It is a remarkable development, given that Chicago is the center of the meat industry by the 1890s, that it also becomes a fulcrum for the vegetarian movement in the United States. A lot of it is driven by the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair, which put the vegetarian movement on the world stage for the first time. The vegetarian component of the fair itself is a worldwide organization, the Vegetarian Federal Union, which unites vegetarians not only from the United States but Europe and even places like India, so you have Hindus who are speaking at this event.

The momentum from the exposition starts sort of this tidal wave of vegetarian organizations and establishments popping up within the city. The first vegetarian establishment in the city opens up near the fairgrounds, on 63rd Street in Englewood, to house people at the fair, because there were vegetarians coming to the fair from around the world who needed a place where they knew that they could get a meal they could trust.

After that, all these businesses and organizations started popping up. The first vegetarian restaurant in Chicago, the Pure Food Lunch Room, opened up in 1900 in the Loop at 176 E. Madison. There’s one called the Ionia Vegetarian Restaurant, which actually had two locations, one which was at 187 Dearborn and another that was on Clark Street in the Loop. Most of these restaurants are in these high-traffic areas that were connected to the city’s elite. You also have restaurants popping up in the Gold Coast and in Uptown, which at the time was kind of the vacation spot for Chicago’s economic elite.

Reading about these restaurants, you don’t really talk about what the food was like. It seems like today, someone writing about vegetarian restaurants would feel they kind of had to stress the sensual side of it—how great the fresh local carrots or the braised kale tasted. Pleasure would be an important consideration, but we don’t really hear that. Do you have any idea what the food they were serving was like?

There isn’t necessarily a gourmand perspective to vegetarianism then. But there is an important shift in what was being served around this time. Unfortunately, for these specific restaurants I haven’t been able to find any surviving menus, so I don’t know specifically what was being served, but I do have a sense in general of the food that was being promoted to vegetarians, based on cookbooks of the time, and advertising. This is the moment when fake meats were becoming popular, originally invented by J.H. Kellogg at his Battle Creek sanitarium.

Kellogg is an important figure for vegetarians at this time because he invents a series of fake meats, the most popular of which was known as Protose, which were very similar to the kind of fake meats that you would find at a grocery store or restaurant today—think of the things they serve at the Chicago Diner, fake meats made out of either soy protein or nuts, that are crafted to look and smell like meat. And this is a big change, because up until this time vegetarians are eating mostly very plain meals, boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage, that sort of thing. But as part of vegetarianism’s shift away from the movement, they start promoting these kinds of foods to help gain broader appeal. So they are serving in these restaurants meals that are supposed to taste like a steak, or a hamburger, or whatever. Whether or not they did is hard to gauge at this point, but people certainly believed that they did.

Chicagos first vegetarian restaurant, opened 1900.
  • Chicago’s first vegetarian restaurant, opened 1900

It also seems a very industrial solution—before, vegetarianism told you to grow a cabbage for yourself and eat it, now it’s creating a product for you. There’s also even a way to industrialize it yourself, the Vegetarian Society Mill, which they sold for grinding nuts and other things to make your own fake meats. This seems a very Chicago contribution to the movement.

It absolutely is, it’s a break not only because vegetarians are seeing benefits to the gustatory qualities of meat, but what they’re saying is that they can improve on those qualities. That the fake meats are actually more effective at what they call “blood building,” which is effectively protein. They see them as creating better energy within individuals. So it’s the idea that you can kind of industrialize the process of making fake meats, and use scientific principles to improve upon something as natural as a steak.

Also, they’re certainly responding to the state of meat production in Chicago, which was causing angst among the population in terms of its environmental impacts—people are smelling the stockyards throughout the city, there are labor implications for the people that are working in the Back of the Yards, and vegetarians are very aware of that and kind of marketing to these problems that the meat industry is causing.

So I looked at these Chicago business names that you mention in your book, and I really didn’t recognize any of them as having continued on for any length of time. How long did this phase of the vegetarian movement last, and what happened to it?

That’s a great question, and it’s one that I’m starting to look at now—what happened to vegetarianism in the intervening years. My book ends in 1921, with the end of the Vegetarian Society of America. Some of the vegetarian businesses did manage to keep on; the one that comes to mind is Berhalter’s, which as far as I can trace did survive up until around 1930.

It’s a difficult time for vegetarians because they no longer have a national organization. But clearly the idea does not go away. From a population standpoint, there’s some evidence that the movement continued to grow. A Gallup poll in 1943 shows that somewhere between two and three million people self-identify as vegetarians at that time, and they’re doing this without a movement.

Now maybe that’s a sign of success. In some ways I think the early vegetarians would be happy about that—that it’s something that people just do without giving it much thought would not only surprise them, but make them pretty happy.