The term "vegetarian" has been in use since around 1839 to refer to what was previously described as a vegetable regimen or diet. Modern dictionaries based on scientific linguistic principles explain its origin as an irregular compound of vegetable and the suffix -arian (in the sense of "supporter, believer" as in humanitarian). The earliest-known written use is attributed to actress, writer and abolitionist Fanny Kemble, in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian plantation in 1838–1839.[i]
The practice can be traced to Indus Valley Civilization in 3300–1300 BCE in the Indian subcontinent, particularly in northern and western India and in Pakistan. Early vegetarians included Indian philosophers such as Mahavira and Acharya Kundakunda, the Tamil poet Valluvar, the Indian emperors Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka; Greek philosophers such as Empedocles, Theophrastus, Plutarch, Plotinus, and Porphyry; and the Roman poet Ovid and the playwright Seneca the Younger. The Greek sage Pythagoras may have advocated an early form of strict vegetarianism, but his life is so obscure that it is disputed whether he ever advocated any form of vegetarianism at all. He almost certainly prohibited his followers from eating beans and from wearing woolen garments. Eudoxus of Cnidus, a student of Archytas and Plato, writes that "Pythagoras was distinguished by such purity and so avoided killing and killers that he not only abstained from animal foods, but even kept his distance from cooks and hunters". One of the earliest known vegans was the Arab poet al-Maʿarri (c. 973 – c. 1057).[a] Their arguments were based on health, the transmigration of souls, animal welfare, and the view—espoused by Porphyry in De Abstinentia ab Esu Animalium ("On Abstinence from Animal Food", c. 268 – c. 270)—that if humans deserve justice, then so do animals.
Vegetarianism established itself as a significant movement in 19th-century England and the United States. A minority of vegetarians avoided animal food entirely. In 1813, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley published A Vindication of Natural Diet, advocating "abstinence from animal food and spirituous liquors", and in 1815, William Lambe, a London physician, claimed that his "water and vegetable diet" could cure anything from tuberculosis to acne. Lambe called animal food a "habitual irritation", and argued that "milk eating and flesh-eating are but branches of a common system and they must stand or fall together". Sylvester Graham's meatless Graham diet—mostly fruit, vegetables, water, and bread made at home with stoneground flour—became popular as a health remedy in the 1830s in the United States. Several vegan communities were established around this time. In Massachusetts, Amos Bronson Alcott, father of the novelist Louisa May Alcott, opened the Temple School in 1834 and Fruitlands in 1844,[j] and in England, James Pierrepont Greaves founded the Concordium, a vegan community at Alcott House on Ham Common, in 1838.
In 1843, members of Alcott House created the British and Foreign Society for the Promotion of Humanity and Abstinence from Animal Food, led by Sophia Chichester, a wealthy benefactor of Alcott House. Alcott House also helped to establish the UK Vegetarian Society, which held its first meeting in 1847 in Ramsgate, Kent. The Medical Times and Gazette in London reported in 1884:
There are two kinds of Vegetarians—one an extreme form, the members of which eat no animal food products what-so-ever; and a less extreme sect, who do not object to eggs, milk, or fish. The Vegetarian Society ... belongs to the latter more moderate division.
An article in the Society's magazine, the Vegetarian Messenger, in 1851 discussed alternatives to shoe leather, which suggests the presence of vegans within the membership who rejected animal use entirely, not only in diet. By the 1886 publication of Henry S. Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism and Other Essays, he asserts that, "It is quite true that most—not all—Food Reformers admit into their diet such animal food as milk, butter, cheese, and eggs..." Russell Thacher Trall's The Hygeian Home Cook-Book published in 1874 is the first known vegan cookbook in America. The book contains recipes "without the employment of milk, sugar, salt, yeast, acids, alkalies, grease, or condiments of any kind." An early vegan cookbook, Rupert H. Wheldon's No Animal Food: Two Essays and 100 Recipes, was published in London in 1910. The consumption of milk and eggs became a battleground over the following decades. There were regular discussions about it in the Vegetarian Messenger; it appears from the correspondence pages that many opponents of veganism came from vegetarians.
During a visit to London in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi—who had joined the Vegetarian Society's executive committee when he lived in London from 1888 to 1891—gave a speech to the Society arguing that it ought to promote a meat-free diet as a matter of morality, not health. Lacto-vegetarians acknowledged the ethical consistency of the vegan position but regarded a vegan diet as impracticable and were concerned that it might be an impediment to spreading vegetarianism if vegans found themselves unable to participate in social circles where no non-animal food was available. This became the predominant view of the Vegetarian Society, which in 1935 stated: "The lacto-vegetarians, on the whole, do not defend the practice of consuming the dairy products except on the ground of expediency."
Vegan etymology (1944)
In August 1944, several members of the Vegetarian Society asked that a section of its newsletter be devoted to non-dairy vegetarianism. When the request was turned down, Donald Watson, secretary of the Leicester branch, set up a new quarterly newsletter in November 1944, priced tuppence. He called it The Vegan News. He chose the word vegan himself, based on "the first three and last two letters of 'vegetarian'" because it marked, in Mr Watson's words, "the beginning and end of vegetarian", but asked his readers if they could think of anything better than vegan to stand for "non-dairy vegetarian". They suggested allvega, neo-vegetarian, dairyban, vitan, benevore, sanivores, and beaumangeur.
The first edition attracted more than 100 letters, including from George Bernard Shaw, who resolved to give up eggs and dairy. The new Vegan Society held its first meeting in early November at the Attic Club, 144 High Holborn, London. Those in attendance were Donald Watson, Elsie B. Shrigley, Fay K. Henderson, Alfred Hy Haffenden, Paul Spencer and Bernard Drake, with Mme Pataleewa (Barbara Moore, a Russian-British engineer) observing. World Vegan Day is held every 1 November to mark the founding of the Society and the month of November is considered by the Society to be World Vegan Month.
The Vegan News changed its name to The Vegan in November 1945, by which time it had 500 subscribers. It published recipes and a "vegan trade list" of animal-free products, such as Colgate toothpaste, Kiwi shoe polish, Dawson & Owen stationery and Gloy glue. Vegan books appeared, including Vegan Recipes by Fay K. Henderson and Aids to a Vegan Diet for Children by Kathleen V. Mayo.
The Vegan Society soon made clear that it rejected the use of animals for any purpose, not only in diet. In 1947, Watson wrote: "The vegan renounces it as superstitious that human life depends upon the exploitation of these creatures whose feelings are much the same as our own ...". From 1948, The Vegan's front page read: "Advocating living without exploitation", and in 1951, the Society published its definition of veganism as "the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals". In 1956, its vice-president, Leslie Cross, founded the Plantmilk Society; and in 1965, as Plantmilk Ltd and later Plamil Foods, it began production of one of the first widely distributed soy milks in the Western world.
The first vegan society in the United States was founded in 1948 by Catherine Nimmo and Rubin Abramowitz in California, who distributed Watson's newsletter. In 1960, H. Jay Dinshah founded the American Vegan Society (AVS), linking veganism to the concept of ahimsa, "non-harming" in Sanskrit. According to Joanne Stepaniak, the word vegan was first published independently in 1962 by the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, defined as "a vegetarian who eats no butter, eggs, cheese, or milk".