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The American Vegetarian Society

On May 15, 1850, a convention was held in New York which established the American Vegetarian Society. A full, very detailed, account of the meeting is available.

The meeting was called by William Metcalfe who had led a migration of 40 members of the Bible Christian Church from England to Philadelphia in 1817, all abstainers from flesh foods. By 1830 Sylvester Graham (picture right) and William Alcott MD were also following the meatless diet. Metcalfe soon heard about the formation of the Vegetarian Society in Britain in 1847, and about the new word 'Vegetarian' now being used. He contacted Graham and Alcott and arranged the New York gathering.

For further background on events leading up to the formation of AVS see:

The innaugural meeting was chaired by William Metcalfe and elected William Alcott as the first President.

See also:
The Vegetarian


William Alcott was best known as the author of The Vegetable Diet As Sanctioned by Medical Men and By Experience in All Ages. He had grown up very close to his cousin, Bronson Alcott, co-founder of the Fruitlands vegetarian commune (later made famous by the presence of Bronson's 10 year old daughter - Louisa May). Bronson was a strict vegetarian and in contact with Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Herald-Tribune. He was also in contact with the new society and wrote to some of their meetings, but we have no reports of actual attendance. See Bronson Alcott (by Karen Iacobbo)

Henry David Thoreau was also very close to Bronson Alcott and a friend of Horace Greeley, though Thoreau's vegetarianism was less consistent. He too would have been aware of the society but we have no details of any direct involvement.

The people who really made a difference to the development of vegetariansim are usually those less well known today. See: Russell Trall: A visionary doctor - and an early Vice-President of AVS and Mary Gove Nichols: Uncommonly Victorian & Veg (both by Karen Iacobbo )

1852/4 - The Vegetarian Messenger (England), carried several reports of the third annual meeting of the American Vegetarian Society in September (Vol.III, 1852/3).

1853/4 - The Messenger had an item on 'The American Vegetarian Periodical' encouraging British readers to subscribe to the 'American Vegetarian'. Plus a report on the January issue, with details of the New York Vegetarian Association and a Vegetarian festival in New Jersey . There were also full reports of the 1853 'Annual Vegetarian Meeting' on the 24th and 25th of August in Philadelphia. (Vol III, 1853/4)

Also in 1853 another convention was held in New York and we have an unexpected account of it from The California Steamship Lines in a letter from NY back to CA. The full letter, dated 'New York, September, 4, 1853' can be found at . The last paragraph is reproduced below:

"A convocation, under the grandiloquent title of the "Whole World’s Temperance Convention," has been in session here for a few days past. There was a strong cross of "Women’s-rightsism" about it. Rev. Miss Antoinette L. Brown (as the Tribune regularly reports her) and "other such," figuring largely. They wound up yesterday with a Vegetarian Banquet, at Metropolitan Hall, luxuriating on such an enticing bill of fare as Graham bread, stewed squashes, wheaten grits, and pure cold water. Horace Greeley was chairman and grant carver, or, to be more in keeping with the materiel of the "carte," perhaps I should say Spooney-in-Chief. . . "

For a more sympathetic account see: Vegetarians in New York, circa 1853 (by Karen Iacobbo). The Vegetarian Messenger makes a brief mention of the event in Vol.IV., p.49.

1854/3 - The Vegetarian Messenger (Vol. V), carried another report on 'The American Vegetarian Periodical' reporting that the 'American Vegetarian' had terminated with the December issue. The American Committee expressed their concern as to whether the American Vegetarian Society could continue to exist. The Messenger expressed similar concerns, urging the Americans to resume publication - though failed to mention that whilst they were being heavily subsidised from a private source, the Americans were not so fortunate. It was noted that its contents would in future be included in the 'Water Cure Journal'.

One of the many supplements to Vol.V gave a very detailed account of the 5th Annual Meeting of the American Vegetarian Society, held on August 30th, 1854, at the Bible Christian Church in Philadelphia. It mentions that one of those present was 'Mr. H. S. Clubb, of Washington, late of Manchester, England' - he would later play a significant role in American Vegetarianism. The Rev. William Metcalfe spoke of when he first arrived in America in 1817, stating that he 'had then been a Vegetarian better than eight years' - though the word 'vegetarian' didn't exist at that time of course.

Vol. VI, 1855/6 of the Vegetarian Messenger makes no mention of the Americans at all. Presumably there was no news in the absence of the American journal.

Vol. VII, 1856/57 brought some further discussion, leading to what was effectively joint membership of the British and American Societies. The original rules of the British Society, back in 1847, had allowed 'Honorary' (free) membership for overseas vegetarians (initially intended for British residents in the colonies, this being the height of the British Empire, and letters were published from India, South Africa, Australia etc.). This rule had been copied when the American Society was formed in 1850. In late 1856 William Metcalfe proposed that all members of each society should become honorary members of the other.

An editorial, plus the circular issued by the Americans, inviting all their members to the annual meeting, and the next two editorials, all show increasing concern about the survival of the AVS. However the joint membership proposal was readily agreed to by the British and formalised at the subequent annual meetings in 1857 (7th Annual Meeting of the AVS - Vegetarian Messenger Vol VII supplement).

In reality this meant that the Vegetarian Messenger now became the journal of AVS and all the American members were sent free copies. For the next two years there were frequent articles by and about Americans, along with letters to the editor from Americans, full reports of the American annual meetings - with frequent complaints from the British editor about the poor quality of the American reports, often taken second hand from the local American press - but bigger problems were to come.

On March 29, 1859, Dr. William Alcott, President of AVS, died. This left the society in the hands of William Metcalfe, assisted by his son Joseph, based at the Bible Christian Church in Philadelphia, and increasingly becoming just an offshoot of the Church. But an even bigger blow turned out to be the death of James Simpson, President of the British Society on September 2 of the same year. It was then publicly acknowledged that Mr. Simpson had been personally paying for all the free copies of the Vegetarian Messenger being sent around the world, as well as to many libraries and institutions in Britain, contributing an extremely large amount of money. Without this funding there were doubts whether the Messenger could continue at all.

Emergency meetings held in Manchester in October and November 1859 agreed that the Vegetarian Messenger would henceforth be published quarterly, instead of monthly, at an increased subscription - and that the free copies would have to cease. The Americans were now obliged to join the British Society if they wished to continue receiving the magazine. It seems that many of them did so, but would then have seen little point in paying another subscription to the almost defunct AVS, thus hastening its demise.

The new quartely publication first appeared in January 1861, now entitled 'The Dietetic Reformer and (in much smaller print) Vegetarian Messenger'. The issues for 1861/62 had a high level of American input, including a very long serialised article by Dr. Trall from New York and reports of the AVS annual meetings. Dr. Trall was also a speaker at the Vegetarian Society annual meeting in London in 1862.

The AVS struggled on, holding its 12th annual meeting in 1862, under the Presidency of William Metcalfe. Then, near the end of that year, Rev. Metcalfe died - and AVS appears to have died with him. There were no further reports of AVS in the Vegetarian Messenger. The New York Vegetarian Association was still going and the NY based vegetarian doctors were still using the Water Cure Journal for thier articles, but for how long is not clear. In 1863 the membership of the British Society was given as 925, with 161 being overseas, apparently mostly in America. But the American content of the Vegetarian Messenger gradually declined and seems to have gone completely by 1865.

The Vegetarian Messenger eventually returned to a monthly format and continued until 1960 when it underwent various mergers, name changes, frequency changes, to become The Vegetarian, still published, now quarterly again, from Manchester today. The original Vegetarian Society merged with others in 1969 to become the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Ltd., still based in Manchester, and now has about 16,000 members, some of them overseas.

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