If you live in a metropolis, veganism has probably become as familiar to you as police helicopters and traffic jams, but it’s a relatively new movement. On World Vegan Day we take a moment to look at the origins of this now-familiar sect of vegetarianism known for its opposition to all exploitation of animals.
To be clear, vegans do not consume meat, dairy products, eggs, honey, animal gelatin, nor any other animal-based food. The strictest also avoid products made from materials like leather, wool, fur, silk, and animal oils (found in many cosmetics). Shunning the consumption of animals goes back to ancient India and the eastern Mediterranean, where Pythagoras spoke on its behalf around 500 BCE. However, the Oxford English Dictionary cites 1839 as the earliest use of the term vegetarian.
The Vegan Society says that by 1909 the ethics of eating dairy products were debated inside the vegetarian movement, and it was in 1944 that Elsie Shrigley and Donald Watson organized non-dairy vegetarians in London. Watson held a meeting of just six enthusiasts who decided to create a society to support each other and help others navigate the tricky transition into a dairy-free diet. Dairyban, vitan, benevore, sanivore, and beaumangeur were all names they discussed for themselves, but ultimately chose vegan, from the first three and last two letters of vegetarian. In 1951, the movement came to officially exclude all animal products.
The first vegan society in America formed in 1948. Today, branches of the Vegan Society exist in Europe, America, Australia, Holland, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. In 2009, the Vegetarian Resource Group reported that one percent of Americans identified as vegan. If that’s true in 2011, that would put their numbers close to three million. How many do you know?