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A vegetarian in Ascona, Switzerland, in 1907.
A vegetarian in Ascona, Switzerland, in 1907.
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

The nudists, doctors, and true believers who built vegetarianism

They refused to eat meat when that was still a radical act.

Today, October 1, is World Vegetarian Day. The North American Vegetarian Society started the holiday in 1977, and the International Vegetarian Society picked it up the next year. But the history of vegetarianism in the West stretches back far, far earlier, all the way to the 19th century. And the early days were ... well, sometimes they were a bit weird.


Back in the 1800s, people in England first began to organize groups that promoted vegetarianism as a means of preserving animal life. The 1809 founding of the Bible Christian Church marked an early starting point, and other organizations — both religious and secular — followed. As early as 1811, potential vegetarians could find arguments in books like John Newton's strident testimonial The Return to Nature:

The title page of John Newton's 1811 vegetarian book

The title page to John Newton's 1811 book. (Internet Archive)

In the ensuing decades, vegetarianism grew in popularity, thanks to advocacy from some religious groups and support from parts of the medical community (one example, from 1838: Vegetable Diet, as Sanctioned by Medical Men, and by Experience in All Ages). The movement spawned influential journals and attracted key converts, including celebrity adherents like poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The 1847 founding of the Vegetarian Society only confirmed the trend.

Early vegetarians occasionally threw great parties, too, like the 1851 Soiree of the Vegetarian Society, which featured both moral abstention from meat and exaggerated health claims:

A report on the 1851 Soiree

The 1851 Soiree in the Freemasons hall

The 1851 Soiree in Freemasons' Hall. (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Vegetarian societies were exclusive clubs that often held eccentric opinions. Vegetarianism was a subculture, and sometimes one that stood far, far out of the mainstream. In places like Ascona, Switzerland, in the 1900s, vegetarianism mixed with avant-garde communal nudist life (the colony was started by an "anarchist physician"):

The vegetarians of Ascona

The rebel vegetarians of Ascona, sunbathing. (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

Even if it was far from the mainstream, vegetarianism managed to persist for decades. It certainly didn't hurt that some of its key advocates, like playwright George Bernard Shaw, were especially passionate about the cause — and willing to give great quotes.

— A quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw circa 1893

George Bernard Shaw circa 1893. (Getty Images)

But celebrity endorsements weren't all that kept vegetarianism going. It took the continuing work of activists as well as entrepreneurship. This Parisian vegetarian restaurant, photographed in 1931, was one of a few run by the Trait D'Union's Naturist Society (a nudist group). Diners were, happily, all clothed.

The vegetarian cuisine of Paris

Vegetarians in Paris
Vegetarians in Paris

Scenes from a vegetarian restaurant in Paris, 1931. (Keystone France/Getty Images)

As time went on, vegetarianism shed some old associations and gained new ones. Like religion before it, nudism ceased to become a defining feature of vegetarianism, and eventually hippies embraced the movement, as seen in the Whole Earth restaurant in 1977.

Whole Earth

The Whole Earth restaurant in 1977, where a cook uses mung beans to make a salad. (Steve Larson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The new wave of vegetarians helped found International Vegetarian Day in 1977, and since then, the movement has ceased to be a fringe subculture and has become more of a lifestyle choice. Today, we don't think of spiritualism or nudism when it comes to vegetarians. Instead, we see this picture from 1979 as a harbinger of the vegetarianism to come: a family, shopping for food, and choosing, for a host of possible reasons, to skip the meat.

A family shops for a vegetarian meal in 1979.

A vegetarian family goes grocery shopping in 1979. (Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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