Noting that “flesh-eating produces a moral obtuseness and irritableness of spirit,” Asenath Nicholson offered Graham bread, fresh vegetables, and cold baths in order to produce a “firmness of nerve, and clearness of intellect.”
June 1, 1835
Nature's Own Book
Asenath Nicholson—an abolitionist, writer, and former teacher— opened her first Graham boardinghouse in New York City at 118 Williams Street in 1835, following it up three years later with another home at 21 Beekman Street. The so-called Temperance Boarding House offered Grahamites the basics of boardinghouse living—a place to sleep, three meals a day, and social interaction—with the added supplies necessary to live a Graham-endorsed life. A vegetable diet was offered; and breakfast, dinner, and supper were served in a communal dining area to encourage interaction among the faithful. Cold baths, hard mattresses, and Graham bread were mandated in order to encourage health, circulation, and proper digestion.
Located in an area filled with reform organizations—the American Anti-Slavery Society’s offi ces were down the block at 48 Beekman— Nicholson’s temperance boardinghouse served as a meeting place for New York’s reform-minded citizens. While dietetics may have been a central fi xation of the home’s residents, an all-encompassing attitude toward social reform prevailed. According to William Tyler, a professor of Latin and Greek at Amherst College and a resident of the Graham House on William Street, “the Boarders in this establishment are not only Grahamites but Garrisonites—not only reformers in diet, but radicalists in Politics. Such a knot of Abolitionists I never before fell in with.”
Most important, the boardinghouse ensured interaction between Grahamites, who shared experiences, meals, and ideologies. Grahamites were no longer content to share their dietary theories solely in lecture halls. Reformers also desired to live in communities of like-minded individuals within the urban landscape. The boardinghouse provided inhabitants meatless fare and the opportunity to discuss the important issues of the day—dietetics, slavery, suff rage, and temperance.
Sylvester Graham himself was not directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the boardinghouses he inspired. As much as Graham was responsible for the spreading of early proto-vegetarianism, practitioners morphed the ideology into a variety of life experiences. As Nicholson noted, while Graham served as an inspiration, his lectures and writings were merely “a starting point to be enlarged and improved as practice might suggest.” Graham’s dietary principles served as the backbone for boardinghouse life; how these ideals were enacted depended on a variety of local forces including geography, economics, and demographics. Despite this disconnect, during the 1830s and 1840s proto-vegetarians were largely labeled Grahamites, by themselves and others, because of Graham’s prominent public persona.
But why the need for Grahamite boardinghouses in cities rather than the private practice of a Grahamite lifestyle? Urban areas, stricken with perceived vice and degradation, were seen as both morally and physically dangerous by reformers. New York City, with its commercial sex districts and visible brothels, was seen as particularly threatening to young, middle-class men living on their own, renting rooms throughout the city. One publication remarked on the Beekman Street home’s demographics, finding it “truly surprising to see how many temporary sojourners in the city, from different parts of the country, take lodgings at the Graham House, in order to be accommodated with the plain mode of living they practise at home.”
Nicholson recognized the existence of these threats, believing that a Graham lifestyle provided moral clarity to her boarders and encouraged positive dietary habits by creating a small community of Grahamite practitioners. Noting that “flesh-eating produces a moral obtuseness and irritableness of spirit,” Nicholson offered Graham bread, fresh vegetables, and cold baths in order to produce a “firmness of nerve, and clearness of intellect” to better prepare her residents for the dangers of city life. The proof of the diet’s success, Nicholson pointed out, was in the level of health of the houses’ residents, who exhibited “not a shadow of cholera . . . and the prevailing influenza, which has taken the lives of many.” With a proper, natural diet and a little exercise and fresh air, boardinghouse residents were able to overcome any illnesses that might appear.
All boardinghouses had house rules prescribing meal times, visitor policies, and cost. Nicholson’s Grahamite home was guided by a litany of regulations, thirteen principles of the natural life inspired by Graham and his lectures. Visitors agreed to abide by these rules in order to remain in good standing as residents of the boardinghouse. Democratic principles allowed for some amendment of the regulations, relying on boarder votes to change prescribed dinner and supper times. Feather mattresses were banned, as Graham lectured that soft beds diminished “physiological powers.” Exercise was mandated for residents, either a thirty-to-sixty-minute walk or a slow horse ride, though guidelines encouraged residents to avoid “all violence and excess” in their efforts. Lastly, during a time when regular bathing was rare, residents were required to take a daily sponge bath and at least one full bath per week.
In 1835, Nicholson authored the first American vegetarian cookbook, Nature's Own Book. Nicholson stated that "good bread, pure water, ripe fruit, and vegetables are my meat and drink exclusively." The book utilized some recipes with dairy, but Nicholson personally advocated against its use.
Nicholson also authored, Kitchen Philosophy for Vegetarians. The book was published by William Horsell in 1849. A review in the Vegetarian Advocate, noted that "butter and eggs are excluded" from the recipes. The Vegan Society have cited the book as the first vegan cookbook.