The Great American Vegetarian Experiment


(system) #1

America in the 1920s is sometimes called the Jazz Age, a time for experimentation in music and morals. A time of financial expansion and speculation. But it was also the era of Prohibition – when from 1920 to 1933 government legislation declared meat to be illegal and the nation was forced ‘go veggie’.

As that epoch recedes further from our collective consciousness we tend to forget what an impact this great experiment had on the American psyche. But even less remembered is the pivotal role Adventism played in the story.

On December 18, 1919, the U.S. Senate was scheduled to vote on the Volstead Act – legislation intended to “outlaw production, transport and consumption of intoxicating liquor”. But on the evening of December 17, an overzealous health-reforming Adventist named U. C. Pyne broke into the Senate chambers and, using a pen and the recently-invented White Out [1], changed the words “intoxicating liquor” to “meat” on each copy of the bill.

The next day the Senate, never noted for paying close attention to wording, voted this ‘amended’ legislation without bothering to re-read it. Two weeks later an alert media noticed that the new law had actually introduced nationwide vegetarianism and wondered what had happened to the anti-alcohol legislation. The senators vigorously denied having made a mistake. And the American public, visibly relieved at not having to give up their booze, settled in to give vegetarianism a try.

So on January 29, 1920, Prohibition officially began. No more traditional breakfasts of ham & eggs. Ham was now illegal, but what was the status of eggs? This ambiguity was hastily cleared up with passage of the so-called Lacto-Ovo Compromise [2], much to the chagrin of militant vegans.

Naturally a meat-based economy had to make significant adjustments. Many cattle ranchers sold their herds to Canadians and bought dairy cows instead. Some just plowed their range land and grew vegetables in hope of a quick buck. For example, a 1921 speculation on broccoli futures caused the price to jump 236% in six months, but crashed shortly afterward. Butchers were hit equally hard. Many shifted production to become ‘egg crackers’ as new refrigeration techniques allowed for mass production of omelets and quiche [3]. And new industries sprang up to meet these shifting market conditions. In 1923 the town of Worthington, Ohio was incorporated.

But Pyne’s nefarious act was eventually brought to light. And the American public learned that their new meatless lifestyle was the fault of an Adventist. This began what has since been known in church history as the ‘Little Time of Trouble’ [4]. Adventists became targets of derision and persecution. In the South night-riders from the newly-formed Cow-Cluck-Clan defaced Adventist churches, painting large graffiti vegetables on the sides of the buildings.

This wave of resentment toward the church in turn fueled a heightened Adventist sense of eschatological immediacy. Evangelists who advertised their meetings with posters trumpeting ‘The End is Near’ initially drew large crowds. But they dwindled when the people discovered that the preacher wasn’t predicting a time for the end of Prohibition, just the end of the world.

Almost immediately Americans began revolting against a meat-free diet and began to seek out clandestine sources. And the government needed to crack down. Restaurants that illegally served meat were shut down and their doors posted with the No Meat Allowed closure notice. The public derisively started to call these posters the ‘Mark of the Beast’. Adventist theologians, upon hearing this usage, began to furiously re-exegete traditional interpretations of the book of Revelation.

But soon the country had concerns bigger than just bashing Adventists. There was a great rise in organized crime as thugs fought to control this lucrative new market. Flesh-runners brought in meat from across the borders and the mob opened secret restaurants to meet the meat demand. Patrons would knock twice and give a soft mooing sound for the password. The doorman then let them in to enjoy a wild evening of burgers and bratwurst. These so-called Moo-Easys soon could be found in every U.S. city [5].

The mob grew ever bolder and more powerful. Nowhere was this more evident than in Chicago where the Capone gang fought a running surf-n-turf war with Bugs Moran. On the morning of February 14, 1929, Moran’s boys were at a north-side garage moving an astonishing 800 steers into small trucks for delivery to suburban restaurants when Capone’s men burst in and stole all the cattle. They brazenly moved the herd through the streets of Chicago to a Capone warehouse where the beef was butchered and sent off for sale. All under the noses of an embarrassed (and heavily bribed) police department. This was the infamous St. Valentine’s day Rustling. Now both the people and the government had seen enough. A repeal bill was introduced into Congress, sped through committee and only four years later was passed. Prohibition was finally over.

Americans, no longer stuck eating Coney Island Big Franks, danced in the streets. Adventists painted over the church graffiti. And the country settled down to enjoy the comparative tranquility of the Great Depression.

[1] The liquid erasure product known to us today as ‘White Out’ was invented in 1917 by Adventist educator R. Edward Books and named after church pioneer Ellen G. White (1827-1915). He originally used it to modify textbooks where the content was not in harmony with Adventist fundamentals, as he understood them.

[2] Sponsored by the Wisconsin congressional delegation.

[3] One of the more familiar marketing campaigns of the 1920s was from the National Egg Board, with their magazine ads showing film star Mary Pickford saying “Let them eat quiche”.

[4] The adjective ‘little’ was included because this time was mercifully cut short in 1933 by the Close of Prohibition.

[5] And in 1922 an obscure Kentucky Colonel opened the first Cluck-Easy.

Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. When not telling lies, his interests range from philosophy to history.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/763