<< Front page News March 19, 2004

College once banned meat

While the co-ops are currently a prominent College feature utilized by many vegetarian and vegan students, and while these dietary restrictions may seem particularly or even peculiarly common on campus today, the tradition has more extreme roots in Oberlin’s history.

Oddly enough, moderation in food was a priority of the Oberlin community from the beginning. “Tea and coffee, highly seasoned meats, rich pastries and all unwholesome and expensive foods” were banned from the College dining halls. Physiology was a required course of study.

The College dictum was based on a theory advocated by a man named Sylvester Graham, the premiere “physiological reformer.” He saw gluttony and bad physical habits as sin, harmful to the body and spirit. He wrote several cookbooks and the physiological reformer’s bible Lectures on the Science of Human Life. Graham believed his diet would prevent masturbation, which he thought caused “blindness, diseaseand death.”

One of his disciples was David Campbell, the editor of the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity. In 1840, Campbell stopped publishing the journal and moved with his wife to supervise the implementation of the Graham diet at Oberlin Collegiate Institute. He saw the Institute as “a model institution for the approaching ‘Millennial Church.’”

The student body and staff were ready to be persuaded. Male members of the colony and college had already formed the Oberlin Physiological Society with President of the College Asa Mahan at its head and Reverend Charles G. Finney on the executive committee.

At that time, almost all students of both sexes ate in the dining room of the Ladies’ Hall. Campbell took control of it. Tea and coffee were mostly considered evil, the colony had already voted in 1837 to boycott any merchants who sold it. Although some faculty did partake, the students in the dining hall were limited to crust coffee and rainwater. Meat was just as frowned upon. It was considered unnatural. Before Campbell, students had to pay extra for it and sit at a separate table in the dining room. Campbell protested that he had moral reservations about handling meat and the table was discontinued. Graham’s opinion on butter: “Butter, at best, is a questionable article.” Oddly enough, milk, eggs and cottage cheese were allowed.

Graham cakes consisted of “coarse wheaten meal, like gingerbread without the ginger, wet with milk, without other shortening.” Condiments and seasonings were foreign articles in Oberlin’s kitchens. If sweetening was used, it was used very sparingly and took the form of honey from Campbell’s bees.

Some embraced this new system. At one point students were voluntarily eating nothing but bread and water. One female student was given a 30 cent rebate on her board bill for “abstemiousness.” They were expected to be moderate even with grains and vegetables.

But the strain was beginning to show. Students were forbidden to use pepper or any other seasoning even when they had bought it themselves. Then Professor John P. Cowles frequently ate his meals in the dining hall and one day brought a pepper shaker. The trustees ordered him to remove it. He was, soon after, fired and rumors abounded as to why. One student walked all the way to Elyria to eat and then kept walking to Western Reserve College in Hudson, into which he subsequently transferred.

These rebels were not alone. In March of 1841, a group made up of students and townspeople protested, saying that the diet was “inadequate to the demands of the human system as at present developed.” In April, Campbell was forced by popular opinion to leave.

In 1845, Finney publicly renounced and regretted his allegiance to the Graham diet.


The Review News Service: News, weather, sports and more, in your ObieMail every Sunday and Wednesday night. (Click here to subscribe.)