Lifestyle and Zeitgeist: Social Norms and Reforms

In the early phase of the vegetarian movement, satirists playfully imagined how this diet and worldview might affect different aspects of culture. Zwei Lieder eines Vegetarianers (“Two songs of a vegetarian”) parodies conventional love poetry by adapting it to the new way of life. In the first poem, Liebesleid (“Lovesick”), the male speaker begins by praising the plant-like beauty of the adored lady, but then recalls the prohibition to love flesh. This poem is difficult to translate into English, because the German language does not differenciate between meat and flesh, but instead uses “Fleisch” to denote both food and the substance of human bodies. This allows puns like the one in this poem, whose speaker supposes that it is literally forbidden for vegetarians to love another person “in flesh and blood.” The insight that the beloved lady is made of flesh and blood, phrased in several ways, discourages the sincere lover. However, his dream that the beloved would join the vegetarian society and slowly turn into vegetables comes true in the second poem, Liebeslust (“Love of love”): the lover is pleased with the transformation of his true love, even though she is only “skin and bones.” The text-image combination mocks the idealism of such a short-sighted utopia and the vegetarians’ self-chosen social separation.

Zwei Lieder eines Vegetarianers (Two songs of a vegetarian). Illustrations by Adolf Oberländer (1845–1923) and poems by I. Weiß, 1881.

“Ach, Deine süßen Pfirsichwangen
Und Deiner Augen Pflaumenblau,
Wie nehmen sie mich ganz gefangen,
Du wundersame schöne Frau!
Ach, Deine süßen Kirschenlippen, 
– Kein Bäumchen solche Kirschen hat –
Ich möchte Kirschen davon nippen,
Und glaub’, ich würde niemals satt.
Doch leider darf ich Dich nicht lieben,
Denn strenge lautet das Gebot:
Wenn Du es wagtest Fleisch zu lieben,
Ereilte Dich gewiß der Tod.
Und Du bist Fleisch, – Du süße Liese 
Ja, Du bist Fleisch, ’s ist leider wahr … .
Ach, wärest Du nur von Gemüse,
Ich liebte Dich dann immerdar!”

“O Liese, Rose der Gedanken,
O Liese, süßer Herzensgast, 
O Liese, sag’, wie soll ich’s danken, 
Daß Du mich so beglücket hast. 
Des Fleisches wegen durft’ nicht lieben 
Ich Dich, Du süßes Mägdelein,
Da hast Du schnell Dich eingeschrieben
In unser’n herrlichen Verein.
Nur Pflanzen aßest und Gemüse
Du mehr, und eh’ man sich verschaut,
Verlorst Du alles Fleisch, o Liese, 
Du hast nichts mehr, als nur die Haut –
Die Haut und auch noch etwas Knochen, 
Doch allen Fleisches bist Du bar, 
D’rum, liebes Kind, in zweien Wochen 
Schreit’ ich mit Dir zum Traualtar!”

—I. Weiß, “Liebesleid” & “Liebeslust,” in Fliegende Blätter 74, no. 1849–1874 (1881): 204.

“Oh, your sweet peach cheeks
And your eyes, plum blue
How they captivate me,
Wondrous beauty, you!
Oh, your sweet cherry lips,
—Unmatched by cherries in trees—
 I’d never get enough
Of nibbling these.
But sadly, I cannot love you,
For the commandment saith:
He who dare love meat,
Will face a certain death.
And you, sweet Liese, are meat—
It’s sadly true, you are…
Oh, if only you were vegetables,
I’d love you evermore!”

Love of Love.
“O Liese, rose of my thoughts,
O Liese, my heart’s sweet guest,
O Liese, how can I thank you
For the joy that swells my breast.
Yet love you I could not, with meat
The cause of my anxiety,
You, sweet lass, you quickly joined
Our wonderful society.
Only vegetables and plants you ate
And before long, one could see
You’ve lost all meat, O Liese,
You’re nothing more than skin—
Skin and also still a little bit of bone
To you, no flesh does cling,
Thus, dear child, in two weeks’ time
Our wedding bells will ring!”

(Trans. Kimberly Coulter.)

Many cartoons demonstrate and make fun of the fact that vegetarianism quickly became a trend that was seen as a sign of the Zeitgeist of the 1880s. The cartoon Zeitgemäße Vertheidigung (“An up-to-date defense”) shows that declaring oneself to be a vegetarian can be an acceptable excuse for anything—even a magistrate must accept it despite serious suspicion. Conversely, since such an excuse is impossible to prove, anyone can conceivably use it. Note the appearance of the supposed vegetarian, who might not have been able to afford meals of meat regularly and was, perhaps for this very reason, accused of consuming a pug.

Zeitgemäße Vertheidigung (An up-to-date defense). Max Flashar (1855–1915), 1886.


Zeitgemäße Vertheidigung.
Ihr seid verdächtig, den Mops der Frau Baronin gestohlen und wahrscheinlich verspeist zu haben!” 
“Unmöglich, Gnaden Herr Amtsrichter!”
“Wieso unmöglich?”
“Weil ich Vegetarianer bin und zwar reinster Observanz!

An up-to-date defense.
“You are suspected of having stolen the pug of Ms. Baroness and of probably having eaten it!”
“Impossible, Mr. Magistrate!”
“Why impossible?”
“Because I’m a vegetarian, following strictest observance!”

In the nineteenth century, some social classes may have abandoned meat out of necessity, but there were also prominent representatives who cultivated and celebrated a vegetable diet as a lifestyle rather than a privation. The cartoon Des Vegetariers Festtag (“The vegetarian’s festive day”) suggests that this was incomprehensible to many. Here, a restaurant guest indulges in a meatless “feast,” by ordering large quantities of spinach and water, a meal, which the opponents of the movement would consider boring and poor as well as an indication of compulsive asceticism.

Des Vegetariers Festtag (The vegetarian’s festive day). Max Flashar (1855–1915), 1905.


Des Vegetariers Festtag.
Heut’ hab’ ich 1000 Mark in der Lotterie gewonnen! . Da will ich mir aber einen guten Tag machen!  Kellner, bringen Sie mir viermal Spinat und eine Doppelliterflasche Mineralwasser!

The Vegetarian’s festive day.
“Today I won 1000 mark in the lottery! Now I will treat myself to a good day! … Waiter, bring me four servings of spinach and a double-liter bottle of mineral water!”

Three decades after the beginning of the movement in Germany, vegetarianism was fully established and socially acceptable as an alternative model of life, as the cartoon Beim Photographen (“At the photographer’s”) shows. Just as almost all restaurants today offer some vegetarian dishes, in 1909 it was part of a photographer’s service, as this cartoon humourously suggests, to adapt to the worldview of their customers. For a good portrait, of course, everyone must be offered an individually pleasing view from the window. While the photographer is depicted as liberal-minded, the vegetarian is ridiculed as a difficult case because of his excessive sensitivity.

Beim Photographen (At the photographer’s). Theodor Graetz (1859–1947), 1909.

Beim Photographen.
“… Jetzt, bitte, recht freundlich!.. Schauen Sie da drüben nach dem Wurstladen hin!” – “Danke – bin Vegetarier.” – “Dann bitte auf die andere Seite – da ist ein Obstladen!” 

At the photographer’s.
“Now, smile, please! Look over there towards the sausage shop!”—“No, thank you—I’m a vegetarian.”—“Then please towards the other side—there is a fruit shop!”

Although vegetarianism had become socially acceptable, some people continued to regard the abstinence from meat as “unmanly,” as demonstrated by a 1938 caricature, whose drawing style is much more modern than the other cartoons featured in this exhibition. From today’s perspective, of course, it is based on obsolete role models and sexism. In the nineteenth century, such an erotic representation of a woman would have been hard to imagine. The sight of her obviously reminds her husband of Adam’s seduction.

Nicht einmal, wenn du mich nur mit verbotenen Früchten nährst, wirst du einen Vegetarier aus mir machen, liebe Elly!” 

“Not even if you only feed me with forbidden fruit, will you make me into a vegetarian, dear Elly!”

Unknown artist, 1938.


Ida Hofmann (1864–1926), co-founder of the vegetarian colony on Monte Verità. Unknown photographer, n.d.

With this pun, the man confesses to his double carnal lust. The joke is that he prefers meat consumption even over sex. However, this joke is less interesting than the implied connection of the vegetarian movement with the gender struggle, which was barely discussed at this time. Female protagonists of vegetarianism, such as Ida Hofmann—central initiator of the life reform movement on Monte Verità and author of Vegetabilismus! Vegetarismus! Blätter zur Verbreitung der vegetarischen Lebensweise (“Vegetability! Vegetarianism! Writings to spread the vegetarian way of life”), saw in vegetarianism a chance to “free the woman from the hearth” and considered only eating vegetables as an “act of resistance” against the family patriarch, who was always served the largest portions and best pieces of meat (Bollmann 2017, 132). A conversion to vegetable nutrition does not only spare the women the time-consuming preparation of meat dishes. Ideally, the new way of eating cold dishes several times a day also does away with the necessity of a strict reverence for meal times and the coercion and hierarchical discrimination wrapped up in them (Bollmann, 133). Vegetarianism was indeed intended as a sociocultural reform that could contribute to social and gender equality.