H.L. Mencken once famously described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”. It would be easy to assume that Mencken, who was often accurate but almost never fair, was exaggerating for humorous effect, but perhaps he had encountered the Society for the Suppression of Eating.
Most of the evidence on the Society for the Suppression of Eating has, like the society itself, vanished from the face of the earth, but tantalizing clues remain.
The Society was created in 1832, in Boston, by a man whose name has been lost to posterity, but who has been described as “a gloomy New Englander” and a “misanthrope”.
Two quotes are ascribed to this elusive Bostonian: “When I go to a dinner party, I see the incarnate forms of gout, apoplexy and fever coaxing their victims to take one more slice”, and the more succinct and menacing, “Disease lurks behind every sirloin”.
The Society seems to have been very focused – they had only five articles:
a) To obtain from the Massachusetts Medical Society a statement of the quantity of food most convenient for a healthy man.
b) Offer a premium for the best treatise setting forth the pernicious effects of over-eating.
c) Members shall pledge to go without dinner once a week.
Which is particularly stringent when considered against:
d) No member shall eat more than once a day.
e) No member shall eat after 8 at night.
The Society for the Suppression of Eating was merely an extreme manifestation of the impulse to temperance that swept America in the mid-19th century and which culminated in the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1920.
Still, prohibiting the consumption of alcohol is one thing – suppressing eating is another. The unpopularity of the Society for the Suppression of Eating can probably be adjudged by the near absence of information available on it. The last mention of the Society appears in the November 5th edition of The Day, from 1937:
“When last heard from the Society was not flourishing.”
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