J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Vegging Out in Colonial Boston

Among all the questions you folks might have about the people of pre-Revolutionary Boston, foremost on your minds is, I'm sure:

Were any of them vegetarians?
And the answer is yes. (Otherwise, I wouldn't have anything to write today.)

Benjamin Franklin described how he came to try vegetarianism (and how it came to try the landlady who cooked for him) in his Autobiography:
When about 16 years of age [i.e., about 1722] I happened to meet with a book, written by one Tryon, recommending a vegetable diet. I determined to go into it. My brother, being yet unmarried, did not keep house, but boarded himself and his apprentices in another family. My refusing to eat flesh occasioned an inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my singularity. I made myself acquainted with Tryon's manner of preparing some of his dishes, such as boiling potatoes or rice, making hasty pudding, and a few others, and then proposed to my brother, that if he would give me, weekly, half the money he paid for my board, I would board myself. He instantly agreed to it, and I presently found that I could save half what he paid me. This was an additional fund for buying books. But I had another advantage in it. My brother and the rest going from the printing-house to their meals, I remained there alone, and, despatching presently my light repast, which often was no more than a bisket or a slice of bread, a handful of raisins or a tart from the pastry-cook's, and a glass of water, had the rest of the time till their return for study, in which I made the greater progress, from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking.
The author Franklin emulated was Thomas Tryon (1643-1703), a British businessman whose radical religious views led him to write a great many books about economic policy, health care, education, early Abolitionism, and other possible reforms. It's unclear which Tryon book Franklin read. Some didn't advocate vegetarianism per se, but only warned against "the immoderate eating of flesh without a due observation of time, or nature of the creature." One even explained how "to preserve eggs five or six months from being musty or rotten." I suspect one title that appealed to young Benjamin was:
Pocket-companion, containing things necessary to be known by all that values their health and happiness being a plain way of nature's own prescribing, to cure most diseases in men, women and children, by kitchen-physick only: to which is added, an account how a man may live well and plentifully for two-pence a day
Later Franklin left his brother's print-shop (running away) and left vegetarianism, with this reasoning:
...in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider'd, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

More prominent as a vegetarian, since he was more than a lowly teenaged apprentice and stuck to it for longer, was Thomas Crafts. He was:
  • a decorative painter ("japanner") by training.
  • a member of the "Loyall Nine" who organized the first Stamp Act protest in August 1765—and who ended one later protest by removing an effigy hung on Liberty Tree without his group's approval.
  • coroner who testified during the Boston Massacre trial.
  • third-in-command of Boston's prewar artillery militia company.
  • head of the town's committee on accepting and distributing donations for the poor after the London government closed the port to transatlantic trade.
  • colonel in charge of the Massachusetts militia artillery for the first years of the war (he stepped down before the disastrous Penobscot expedition).
  • selectman and justice of the peace in Boston for many years during and after the war.
According to an 1897 history of the Crafts family:
The Colonel is described by his contemporaries as a man of immense stature; very powerful, and it is said that he lived entirely on vegetable products and milk.



This is another, absolutely fascinating post. Nobody delves into these things as you do. This is the kind of thing that really helps one understand the spirit of the times and what it may have felt like to live then. Thank you!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your kind words.