The word ‘vegan’ and the first Vegan Society began in November 1944 in England, but it wasn’t long before the idea spread to other countries. These notes are mostly from The Vegan, the journal of the Vegan Society, all copies of which are now available online, from 1944, via their website.
For the first couple of years the journal was entirely about the UK, but things were stirring elsewhere and the first glimpse we get was in the Autumn 1946 issue which stated that there were members “both in this country and abroad”.
In the next issue, we get the first overseas letter from the Bircher-Benner Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland. There had been some discussion about feeding babies and the clinic said they had been successful making their own infant milk from almonds and fruit. A few years later the magazine ran a double page report from the clinic, described as ‘near-vegan’, with a collection of their vegan menus.
In the summer of 1947 there was a two-page article from the President of the Vegetarian Union of Germany, Herr W. F. Adolf Briest: ‘Towards Veganism in Germany’. In 1953 there was a new society - Deutsche Vegan-Gesselschaft – but it faded away again within a couple of years, certainly gone by 1955.
The major international event of the 1940s was the 11th IVU World Vegetarian Congress, held in England, and the new Vegan Society sent several delegates. The lengthy and enthusiastic report in the The Vegan for Autumn 1947 noted other delegates from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Eire and America (right: the Congress hall).
They reported: “Special interest was shown in veganism, Mr. Donald Watson [President] having been invited to speak on the subject”, and a four page summary of his talk was added in the magazine. Apparently the talk generated some lively discussion which had to be adjourned until they had all cooled down a bit . . .
The independent Scottish Vegetarian Society was also present, and it was noted that they had formed a vegan section, rather than a separate society. The vegans in England had originally wanted to do the same, but the Vegetarian Society had rejected the idea.
Several of the other speakers were mentioned as being of interest to vegans, especially the IVU General Secretary, Mr. Bolt from the Netherlands, who “recommended that, as a practical measure, the I.V.U. should encourage the production of vegetable milk and non-leather shoes.” The report concluded: “At the Congress, The Vegan Society was formally accepted as a member of the International Vegetarian Union. It is most encouraging to realise that, as a result, we can now work in direct co-operation with the various vegetarian movements throughout the world.”
The benefits seem to have already begun by the time the report was printed, further on in the same issue were letters from readers in California, New York, Singapore and South Africa. Including one from a Dr. Liber of New York, who had written a plant-food-only book in 1934, suggesting that “the lacto-ovo-vegetarians should have had the trouble of finding another name for themselves, on the ground that we are the true vegetarians.”
In Summer 1948 there was an article showing that in France there had been a similar problem with words. Way back in 1920 Dr. Jules Lefevre had invented ‘végétalien’ for people who ate a plant-food-only diet (distinct from Végétarienne for ovo-lacto) – but this was purely health-related, not concerned with animal ethics. By 1953 there was a monthly plant-food journal from Paris called ‘La Vie Claire’, and some years later a chain of health food stores with the same name. Many further years on the French added ‘Végane’ for an ethical vegan – so at least they have some clarity, whilst English speakers still argue about ‘dietary’ vs. ‘ethical’ veganism.
Interest from the USA developed further in the Autumn of 1948. There was some discussion printed between The Vegan Society and Rubin Abramowitz, of Oceano, California, on the question starting a local vegan group. We have are reports from elsewhere that this did happen, but it was never reported further in The Vegan. There were more letters from Mr. Abramovitz, with the Spring 1950 issue referring to him as “acting as our representative in the USA”, but that was the last time he was mentioned.
The 1947/48 issues reported the Vegan Society Secretary giving talks in Holland and Ireland. Not long afterwards they heard that the Netherlands Vegetarian Society was proposing to form a vegan section.
1950 brought the 12th IVU World Congress in the Netherlands. This was reported as being very friendly for the vegans, but they also complained that they were given no opportunities to put their views. The report ended by stating: “Having lost the opportunity offered by the 1950 Congress we must make the most of the next chance in Sweden in 1953.” They clearly saw vegetarian gatherings as the best means of spreading the word about veganism, and they were quite open about wanting to ‘veganize’ IVU. That did indeed eventually happen, but it took another 50 years...
Between 1950-53 there were an increasing number of reports about doctors promoting plant-food-only diets, particularly the hygienists from the USA. This eventually led the editor to propose three classifications of motivations: health, religion and ethics – with only those ethically motivated being entitled to call themselves ‘vegan’. In 1951 the Society had changed its rules to specify that veganism excluded any use of animals or animal products for any purpose.
In 1953 the vegan delegates to the 13th IVU Congress in Sweden were a lot happier with their participation, and gave considerable praise to the Swedish Vegetarian Society for looking after them so well.
A vegan dinner was arranged in London for some people on their way home from Sweden, including Scott and Helen Nearing from Maine, USA. They were the authors of ‘The Good Life’ about their self sufficiency homestead, and they gave a talk at the dinner. They were described as ‘near-vegan’, but of particular interest as they were the first Americans encountered who gave their primary motivation as not harming any living creatures, rather than the usual concern for their own health.
The Winter1954 issue was a bumper 10th anniversary edition, which included a lengthy report about the editor’s recent tour of North America. He was given estimates of 3 million vegetarians in the USA, mostly from religious groups such as Seventh Day Adventists, and about 1,000 ‘vegans’. But this was the same editor who had insisted that very few of those 1,000 were really vegan as they were only health-motivated.
There had been more letters and articles from such diverse countries as Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Hungary, India, Israel, Japan, Luxembourg, and even China. The word ‘vegan’ was spreading rapidly, whatever they meant by it.
For more about vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” It has now been updated to include the above article, and more. You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: www.ivu.org/history/Vegan_History.pdf (5mb)
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