In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Portland was home to an alternative weekly newspaper named the Pleasure Boat that championed a vegetable diet. The Pleasure Boat, first published in 1845 by reformer and missionary Jeremiah Hacker, is the earliest known vegetarian publication in Maine. The newspaper supported many causes including abolition, women’s rights and temperance – all closely tied to the era’s vegetarian movement.
All these years later, the Pleasure Boat reads like a roadmap to many issues that were to gain traction in the coming years. Copies of the newspaper archived at the Maine Historical Society’s Brown Research Library show that Hacker regularly questioned meat-eating and what he saw as its consequences.
In the July 20, 1854 edition, for example, Hacker linked meat consumption to the oppression of women, writing: “Just look at the slavery that perverted appetite imposes on women! Three times a day, in hot weather, they must fire up the cookstove to roast, boil or fry flesh, and prepare hot tea or coffee, to fire the blood! when a brown loaf, and a pitcher of water from that cool fountain, with a handful of plums or fruit of some kind, would furnish a cooling and more nourishing repast.”
In the same issue, Hacker explained why he endorsed the vegetable diet, writing: “It has been proved that those who live on vegetable food, bread, fruits, &c., are healthier, can perform more labor, endure more heat and cold, and live to a greater age, than flesh eaters.”
From the paper’s beginnings, Hacker regularly discussed food. In the July 21, 1845 edition, he printed a reader’s letter asking why the Pleasure Boat’s Captain ate only “bread and water”? Hacker responded: “I live in a plain simple manner from necessity, choice, and principle.”
In the 1840s, whole wheat bread and cold water were central elements of vegetarian meals. This simple fare, augmented by fruits and vegetables, was promoted by well-known national figures including Sylvester Graham and Dr. William Alcott. The phrase “vegetable diet” was used interchangeably with terms such as “Graham diet” and “temperance diet” and was how people referred to meat-free eating before the word “vegetarian” entered the popular vocabulary.
Here in Maine, Dr. Horace A. Barrows made his own Graham bread and wrote two letters that were published in Alcott’s “Vegetable Diet.” Barrows wrote in the second letter that his meals consisted of “wheat meal bread, potatoes, butter, and baked apples” and he always drank “cold water.”
In 1845, when Hacker bragged of subsisting on bread and water, he was a bachelor living in his sister-in-law Nancy Hacker’s boardinghouse at 11 Cross Street. We don’t know if Hackers’ vegetarian diet changed in 1846, when he married Submit Tobey, known as Mittie, and moved out of the boardinghouse and in with Mittie and her mother on Atlantic Street, according to Rebecca M. Pritchard’s 2019 biography “Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist.” Maybe, like the married Dr. Barrows, Hacker now enjoyed potatoes, butter and baked apples with his Graham bread, too?
We do know from a Portland Weekly Advertiser report about new construction in the city that Hacker built a “brick dwelling house” on Munjoy Hill at the “corner of Monument and Atlantic streets” in 1852. Prichard’s biography notes the Hackers later moved to the north side of Tukey’s Bridge, which was then in Westbrook, and adopted a daughter, Margaret. Adoption was another cause Hacker supported in his newspaper.
Under the headline of “Dining Hall” in the April 4, 1846 Pleasure Boat, Hacker printed a letter from reader “F” who praises a “plain simple diet, such as bread and other vegetables and pure cold water for drink.” Hacker agreed and said meat-eating was the cause of disease and the product of habit. “People are so accustomed to the ‘flesh-pots,’ it is impossible to make them believe that they can renounce them and live until you give them positive proof,” Hacker wrote.
An advocate of temperance but an opponent of total alcohol prohibition, Hacker frequently took offense at local prohibition efforts, such as the 1845 Christmas supper hosted by the Martha Washingtons, a group backing prohibition. The festivities took place at Exchange Hall in Portland, tickets 25-cents each, and when a reader wrote to complain about Hacker’s coverage in which he compared the event to a “Goat Pen,” Hacker shot back outlining the event’s hypocrisy. High on his list was how the group had fed the crowd an intemperate meal of “hogs and oxen,” when flesh consumption was the root cause of intoxication, according to Hacker. “Animal food,” Hacker wrote, “begets an unnatural thirst, which requires unnatural drink, and has been one of the greatest causes of drunkenness in this nation.”
Hacker employed more animal metaphors in the the Nov. 3, 1845 newspaper, where he reported on a cattle show at Saccarappa. In observing the animals on display he said comparing pigs to gentlemen is “libel on the poor beasts,” adding: “Hogs don’t swear, and smoke cigars, and chew tobacco, and drink wine and eat hog.”
By 1860, the Pleasure Boat had a weekly circulation of 2,000, comparable to the circulations of other weekly newspapers in the city according to William Willis’ 1865 “The History of Portland.” Yet by 1862, Hacker’s pacifist views had cost him wartime readers and the publication ceased. After becoming a Spiritualist, Hacker relaunched the paper in 1864 as The Chariot of Wisdom and Love, but its offices burned down in Portland’s Great Fire of 1866. Hacker and his family then moved to New Jersey, where he published Hacker’s Pleasure Boat until sometime after 1868, according to Pritchard.
Pritchard reports that archives across the U.S. and Canada, and even in Germany, house copies of Hacker’s newspapers, yet laments that “Hacker was forgotten by history.” However, there is one place where Hacker is remembered, and that is within the vegetarian movement. In “Vegetarian America: A History,” Karen and Michael Iacobbo describe Hacker as a “crusader” who “championed a number of related causes including peace, environmentalism, animal rights, and vegetarianism.”
Hacker regularly attacked organized government and organized religion. In an 1854 issue, for instance, Hacker criticized preacher William Miller of New York, known for predicting the return of Christ and the end of the world. A decade after the Great Disappointment triggered by Miller’s predictions, Hacker wrote, “one would think this Miller humbug had lasted long enough.” But in 1854 what Hacker called “humbug” was only getting started, as Portland native Ellen G. White was already a prophet of the nascent Seventh-day Adventist church, where many disappointed Millerites found a home. Less than 10 years later, in 1863, White’s spiritual visions led her to become vegetarian, a move that would help popularize vegetarianism in America.
Born in 1801 in Brunswick, Hacker was from a large Quaker family, which included cousin Neal Dow, the prohibition leader, and cousin John Neal, the art critic. Hacker died in 1895 in New Jersey at age 94. But long before then, as a middle-aged man, on Oct. 13, 1845 in Portland, under the title “Physician’s Office,” Hacker wrote about the “quackery” of patent medicines, providing seven “certain cures” for any patient “not past all hope.” He listed a “simple, vegetable diet” among prescriptions that also included exercising, getting sufficient sleep, avoiding stress, maintaining “temperate habits,” taking regular baths and wearing “loose,” nonrestrictive clothing, a nod to the dress reform efforts of the women’s rights movement.
The bathing and clothing edicts are so widely practiced these days that people rarely mention them, while everything else on Hacker’s list is now the medically sanctioned advice for improving one’s health.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]