Romantics, they’re just like you and me: Health fads of the 18th and 19th centuries

If there was one thing* I was completely unprepared for in my pursuit of a PhD, it was the toll grad school would take on my body. After working for several years post-college, I found returning to student life more physically draining than I expected: I hadn’t fully anticipated that my slightly older body would need more sleep and better food than it did in college, that the fonts on my computer would require some magnifying, or that my right wrist would come to demand the support of a carpal tunnel brace. While I realize the hardships of excessive sitting pale in comparison to, say, those of transportation to Botany Bay, that awareness couldn’t fully stop me from dwelling on the chair-bound grad student lifestyle’s surprising tendency to hurt, in places expected…and unexpected.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that as I learned how to take better care of myself as a grad student, I found myself gravitating towards health-related topics in my research. Or perhaps I simply felt vindicated by medical opinion new and old, both of which emphasized the evils of too much sitting. Indeed, Swiss physician Samuel August Tissot’s Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons (1768; translated into English, 1769) would not seem out of place among the numerous recent articles detailing the threat posed by chairs, comfy and otherwise. Tissot’s medical advice is far from the only text that calls to mind current health preoccupations. In this post, I want to highlight a few of my favorites:

1) The restaurant

In her thoroughly enjoyable The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, Rebecca Spang complicates the standard history of the European restaurant. The tale usually goes as follows: As the French Revolution turned violent, aristocrats fled, enabling their previously private chefs to go public and open restaurants catering to the nouveau-riche tastes of the recently empowered bourgeoisie. Spang, however, draws on the etymology of “restaurant” to argue for a pre-Revolution history of the restaurant. As she explains, restaurant originally referred to a long-cooked and highly condensed broth that was supposed to provide the nutrition of meat in an easy-to-digest liquid version. Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, the “self-styled ‘Author’ of the restaurant” opened the first establishment serving restaurants two decades before the start of the Revolution (1766, to be exact). According to Spang, “in its initial form…the restaurant was specifically a place one went not to eat, but to sit and weakly sip one’s restaurant,” in a public performance of one’s refined sensibility (2). Therefore, “rather than originating in Rabelaisian excess, the restaurant’s emergence as a cultural institution distinct from the inn, the traiteur’s shop, or the café owed much to a particular style of not eating. Conspicuous consumption, as Peter Burke has noted, need not always take the form of prodigality: abstemiousness, too, may prove quite remarkable” (35). In contrast with the very real hunger that later helped ignite the French Revolution, the well-fed rich could afford the luxury of not eating.

To me, this history of the restaurant prefigures more contemporary concerns regarding what is often referred to as our current obesity epidemic, and its frequent association­–in the West­, at least–with poverty. As Lauren Berlant puts it in “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)”: “for the first time in the history of the world the overfed are no longer the wealthiest compared to the poor and starving” (766). In contemporary Western society, thinness often connotes wealth, as is made painfully clear by books like Jana Klauer’s How the Rich Get Thin: Park Avenue’s Top Diet Doctor Reveals the Secrets to Losing Weight and Feeling Great and whatever pricey cleansing regimen Gwyneth Paltrow is promoting this week on GOOP. It’s also fascinating to consider how closely the popularity of the restaurant, a “broth of pure meat essences” resembles such recent liquid fads as the now ubiquitous juice fast, and­–even more aptly­–the current bone broth craze. (1).


If all this abstemiousness is too much for you, I also recommend The Invention of the Restaurant for its background on Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, considered by many to be the first restaurant critic. An aristocrat, eccentric, gourmand, and author of L’Almanach des Gourmands, Grimod once invited people to an elaborate funeral banquet in his honor, at which he revealed himself to be very much alive.

2) The Natural Diet

Vegetarianism has a long history, stretching back at least to Pythagoras. But the Romantic period’s best-known vegetarian—at least in retrospect—would have to be Percy Shelley. Timothy Morton’s pioneering Shelley and the Revolution in Taste offers the most sustained discussion of Percy Shelley’s vegetarianism­, arguing that, “drawing on the aversive rhetoric of vegetarianism, Shelley refashioned taste, in revolt against what he conceived to be the hierarchical powers which controlled consumption, production and culture” (1). Part of “a circle of radicals who practiced the natural diet”—itself a radical act rejecting, among other things, the association of good Englishness with beef eating­—Percy Shelley outlined his vegetarian principles in a footnote to his 1813 poem, Queen Mab, and published a revised version, A Vindication of Natural Diet later that year (65). As might be intuited, given Shelley’s privileged background and education, “the middle-class vegetarian diet is…precisely the opposite of the working-class diet: a complex or sophisticated use of simple food…within the group of vegetable eaters there was a distinction between upper and lower class in which food operated as a signifier” (18). Despite the radical (and, not incidentally, hypochondriacal) motivations behind his diet, Shelley’s vegetarianism also heralded a bourgeois project, one that has perhaps reached its apotheosis in our current valorization of the (often prohibitively expensive) farmer’s market. Stripped of their associations with poverty, fruits and vegetables are now—not unlike thinness­—associated with affluence.


But rather than hash out my complicated feelings about Alice Waters and company, I want to end this section on natural diet by paying homage to my favorite legacy of Percy Shelley’s vegetarianism, which—perhaps unsurprisingly—comes thanks to Mary Shelley. In Frankenstein, before everything goes to hell, the Creature pleads with Victor for a companion. In order to convince his maker, he describes his imagined nuptial bliss: “If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again; I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty” (112). Not unlike that guy we probably all know, the Creature wants to start a vegetarian commune in the wilderness. In his confident prediction that his yet-to-be-created “companion…will be content with the same fare,” I wonder if we can detect a hint of irony that suggests Mary Shelley’s own opinions regarding the impact of her husband’s dietary choices on those around him.

3) Walking

After re-reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, the main­—extremely anachronistic—question in my mind has been: what if the Lake poets had worn Fitbits? According to Robin Jarvis’s Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel, Thomas De Quincey’s “somewhat mysterious calculations” put William Wordsworth’s lifetime walking at “‘a distance of 175 to 180,000 English miles’” (89). Although there does not seem to be a way to corroborate this calculation, one need look no further than Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals to understand the central role walking played in their daily lives. And, as Jarvis points out, it is at least possible to track that William Wordsworth traversed “upwards of 2000…miles” in his 1790 walking tour in France and the Alps, a journey which included his famously anticlimactic Alpine crossing (89).


Like vegetarianism, pedestrianism also had radical associations. Previously relegated to those too poor to afford anything better, walking became a late eighteenth-century “cultural phenomenon” that “gradually assimilated into mainstream culture” (9). As radical middle-class vegetarians sophisticated the diet of the poor, radical middle-class walkers sophisticated the transport method of the poor. Jarvis notes that for early walkers such as Wordsworth and Coleridge (who went on a “radical walking” tour from Cambridge to North Wales via Oxford,” among other pedestrian adventures) “there was an element of deliberate social nonconformism, of oppositionality, in the self-levelling expeditions of most early pedestrians” (34; 27). Walking represented “a radical assertion of autonomy…affirmed a desired freedom from context” and “a culturally defined and circumscribed self” (28).

Today, walking seems to represent the easiest way to save ourselves from the evils of too much sitting, as I have discovered to my own benefit in the last couple years of graduate school. But as David Sedaris makes evident in “Stepping Out: Living the Fitbit life,” walking has also been coopted into a larger contemporary project of productivity, or what E.P. Thompson might identify as our “desire to consume time purposively” (95). When his Fitbit dies, Sedaris first celebrates his “freedom” from the tyranny of having to complete his daily allotment of steps. Then he feels bereft: “Walking twenty-five miles, or even running up the stairs and back, suddenly seemed pointless, since, without the steps being counted and registered, what use were they?”

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m advocating an overly simplified view of a return to the past—or that I subscribe to what might be called the Battlestar Galactica school of historical thought (ie: “This has all happened before and it will happen again”). But I do continue to delight in the bizarre similarities between our own purportedly new health fads and those of the long-dead writers we study.

* There are plenty more…

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency).” Critical Inquiry 33 (Summer 2007): 754-780.

Jarvis, Robin. Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel. London: Macmillan, 1997.

Morton, Timothy. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste: The Body and the Natural World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus, edited by Susan J. Wolfson. Longman, 2007.

Spang, Rebecca. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38 (Dec.1967): 56-97.

One thought on “Romantics, they’re just like you and me: Health fads of the 18th and 19th centuries”

  1. Cailey, what a cool and insightful post!

    Can’t recall if Morton cities him, but have you happened upon John Oswald’s 1791 treatise: The Cry of Nature?

    Would love to know how you’d consider a democratic consideration of animal suffering relative to human health/diets, and as informed by the political of the French Revolution.

    There is a politics to these synchronicities of the health fad, and your post has got me thinking about what the significance of political determinants that make these exciting points of convergence possible might be!

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