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How the Vegans landed in America

They could have come from the planet Vega for all most other Americans might have known. But they had been around for a long time, living quietly among the flesh-eaters, before more arrived in the big splash-down of 1975 . . .

How long they were there depends what you call a vegan. The dietary-only types had been munching their plant foods for 150 years, but the ethical species were very rare, even endangered, and needing outside help.

In 1957, 23 year old Jay Dinshah decided to be an ethical vegan. He was born in New Jersey to a lacto-vegetarian family of Jains, immigrants from India. By the late ‘50s he was a board member of the plant-food-only American Natural Hygiene Society, but they were solely concerned with health, and he wanted to do something more for the animals.

He had been reading the journal of the Vegan Society from England, and in a 1959 issue he put his name forward as a contact for the ‘Vegan Correspondence Bureau’. The introductory note in the magazine said he “wishes one day to find a vegan wife!”

He found her in 18 year old Freya Smith from England, whose family were active members of the Vegan Society. In February 1960 Jay founded the American Vegan Society (AVS), and married Freya in August of the same year.

There had been some brief attempts to start vegan societies in California, Germany and India, but none had amounted to much and were soon gone again. The Vegan magazine in England recognised the potential of this one and devoted an entire editorial page to announcing the new AVS. They were right of course, it is still going 52 years later.

The Dinshahs set off across America to give talks and recruit members then, in 1965, they attended their first IVU World Vegetarian Congress. That one was held in Derbyshire, England, where they met members of the UK Vegan Society, including Freya’s mother, Grace Smith, who was now assistant treasurer.

The 1967 IVU Congress was held in India, and the Dinshahs were there too, now in Jay’s parents’ home country. The official delegates for the UK Vegan Society were Brian Gunn-King and his fiancée Margaret Patching (they married the following year). In the photo right they were meeting Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India.

By the end of that Congress, Brian had become the IVU General Secretary, the first vegan ever to hold the post, and Jay Dinshah was co-opted to the Executive Committee. The Vegan noted the potential of having two members in such influential positions.

In 1971 the Vegan Society held its AGM in London close to the next IVU Congress in the Netherlands. The Dinshahs and Gunn-Kings were at both, and Jay was elected as a Vice President of both the Vegan Society and of IVU.

We don’t know exactly when the idea of an IVU Congress in America was first discussed between the four of them, but at the 22nd IVU Congress, 1973 in Sweden, the delegates formally voted to hold the 23rd in the USA in 1975, with Jay Dinshah as the main organizer.

1975 – the vegans have landed – in Maine

“Arguably it was the most important gathering of vegetarians in the United States in the twentieth century." - Vegetarian America, a History. Karen and Michael Iacobbo, Praeger, 2004

And, of course, it was all being led by vegans . . . There were lots of individuals and small, city-based, veg groups across the region, so the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) was launched to bring them together and promote the Congress. Jay Dinshah was elected the first President. They hoped for 1,000 attending, but got 1,500 at the first ever World Veg Congress in America.

Freya was in charge of catering, and wrote a ‘total-vegetarian’ (i.e. vegan) cookbook for the event (original version top right), a version is still available today. The food for the Congress was also all-vegan - but with separate, clearly marked, small containers of milk and cheese for those that insisted on adding them (we don’t bother with that these days of course).

Margaret Gunn-King (above right with child) was an official delegate for the UK Vegan Society, along with Grace Smith, Freya’s mother, now their treasurer.

Right: the famous American comedian, Dick Gregory, with Brian Gunn-King and Jay Dinshah, handing over money collected for the charity VegFam.

So the women were doing the catering and child-care, whilst the men managed the business – well it was still 1975, and we have improved on that these days too . . .

Bottom right: Jay and Freya Dinshah at the ‘Indian Night’ during the Congress – which evolved into the annual NAVS Summerfest.

Full details of the Congress – and some long term impacts of the event at: IVU and the NAVS Summerfest and: IVU and the American Animal Rights Movement

For more about vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” It has now been updated to include the above article, and more. You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: (5mb)

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