For a different kind of history tour, check out the Old City walking tour from the American Vegan Center. Closely linked to the abolitionist, suffragist, and animal rights movements, Philly has had ties to the vegetarian and vegan movements since the Revolutionary period.
Philly’s favorite son, Ben Franklin often gets mentioned in this context, but he was a wishy-washy vegetarian at best. After embracing it as a teenager in Boston, Franklin gave it up on the boat to Philadelphia after smelling fried fish, and justified eating it by noting “If you [the fish] eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” However, he was probably the first to try to introduce tofu into the American diet. In 1770, Franklin sent a package from London to Philadelphia’s John Bartram, which included (among other items of botanical/culinary interest such as rhubarb seeds Botany in Early Philadelphia (pt. 1): Bartram’s Garden – Alligators, American Plants and a Riverside Trail) soybean seeds and a recipe for making tofu. History doesn’t tell us what Bartram did with the seeds, but tofu did not take off as an American food stuff until Chinese immigration in the 1800’s.
A friend of Franklin and another colorful early Philly vegetarian was Benjamin Lay. A four foot, hunchbacked Englishman by way of Barbados, Lay once stabbed a bible filled with red dye during a sermon, covering congregants in fake blood. Due to his experience with slavery in Barbados, Lay was an ardent abolitionist who agitated among his fellow Quakers, and as a consequence got kicked out of many local meetings. Called the “Quaker Comet,” Lay was a vegetarian, in part because of his refusal to eat or wear anything associated with slavery. Benjamin Franklin published Lay’s writings, and Lay may have been the factor that convinced Franklin to eventually free his slaves. In this 1750 portrait commissioned by Deborah Franklin as a gift to her husband, the painter references Lay’s vegetarianism in the basket of fruits in the corner. The portrait has an interesting story of its own, selling for $4 in 1977 at a local auction.
Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) was another early Philadelphia abolitionist who founded one of the world’s first anti-slavery societies, founded the first public girls’ school in America, and taught night classes for black students. Benezet also became vegetarian as a response to the evils of slave labor.
In 1817 the Bible Christians led by Rev. William Metcalfe immigrated to Philadelphia from England, with a goal of proving that vegetarianism was not only possible, but was supported by biblical teachings. Metcalf’s 1821 book, “Abstinence from Animal Flesh,” was published in Philadelphia and is the earliest known American document to make a case for vegetarianism. The original home of the Bible Christians was down this alley behind the Vegan Center.
Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), often called “The Father of American Vegetarianism,” promoted a whole grain diet, including products such as graham crackers and graham bread, was originally hired as a lecturer for the Philadelphia Temperance Society. In 1850 Metcalf, Graham and William Alcott (a Philadelphia doctor who wrote the first American vegetarian cookbook) founded the American Vegetarian Society.
Southern transplants, Sarah (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805-1879) moved to Philadelphia to join both the abolitionist, vegetarian and feminist/suffragette movements. Both became well known (and extremely controversial) public speakers and writers, and it was Sarah that Ruth Bader Ginsberg quoted when arguing before the supreme court: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” In 1838 it was the combination of Angelina’s wedding (with both black and white ministers speaking, and both black and white guests attending) followed by Sarah’s anti-slavery speech at the inauguration of Pennsylvania Hall, (a building bankrolled by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society) that set off the anti-abolitionist mob that burned Pennsylvania Hall down four days after its opening.
Second cousin to Philadelphian/American Vegetarian Society co-founder William Alcott, with whom he shared books and ideas, Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), taught for a short time in Philadelphia and Germantown (where Louisa May was born). He would often visit the Logan Library (part of the APS – Treasures of the American Philosophical Society) where he discovered Pythagoras was vegetarian. After attending lectures by Sylvester Graham, Bronson went on to co-found “Fruitlands” in Massachusetts, a short-lived vegetarian commune that also prohibited animal and slave-produced products.
The Civil War split the vegetarian movement into sides: pacifism versus abolitionism, and the American Vegetarian Society folded in 1862. However, after the war, Henry Clubb, an abolitionist, Michigan state senator, and Civil War veteran became minister of the Bible Christian Church in Philadelphia. He helped found the Vegetarian Society of America and became its first president. He published a cookbook for the organization and founded its magazine.
With the end of the war came the rise of the animal rights movement, and vegetarianism became framed more as an animal rights issue rather than an abolitionist or health issue. In Philadelphia, Quaker Caroline Earle White (1833-1916) helped to found the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1867. Because she was female, Caroline was not allowed to sit on the board, so she went on to found the women’s branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA, which started the first animal shelters in USA in 1869 and installed horse drinking fountains, several of which are still standing in Philadelphia. She also founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society.
The American Vegan Society was founded in New Jersey in 1960. They opened their first public space, the American Vegan Center, in Philadelphia in 2021. The center has a bookstore, an event space, a demonstration kitchen, and a gift shop. It is here that the vegetarian tour begins. The tour ended with a discussion about the vegetarian/vegan restaurant scene in Philadelphia, including the influence of Vedge (Philly Restaurant Review: Vedge (Vegan Fine Dining)).
17 N. 2nd Street