“A Good Investment”: Personal Health amidst Economic Uncertainty

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:50 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton)
Jonathan Riddle, Wheaton College
During the antebellum era, the United States witnessed an intensification of marketplace capitalism that accelerated economic development and pushed the logic of the market further into the countryside and deeper into Americans’ lives. Infrastructural innovations connected growing eastern seaboard cities with ever-farther flung hinterlands. Enterprising businesspersons shipped, stored, and sold goods, while also providing financial structures to manage exchanges among strangers. Improvements in manufacturing accelerated the production of consumer goods and thereby drew free white families into northern factories and enslaved African Americans into cotton production in the western south. Meanwhile, people flocked to cities, only further fueling demand for food, housing, and diversion. In the tumult of these transformations, some Americans made fortunes while others suffered profound loss.

The health reform movement, which urged Americans to embrace vegetarianism, teetotalism, and all-around abstemiousness, emerged in conjunction with this marketplace revolution. The movement drew its members from the swelling ranks of young people freshly arrived in eastern cities and it deployed new infrastructural networks to import food and export physiological knowledge. Reformers also became entrepreneurs. Offering the health-conscious a place to stay, food to eat, and lectures to attend, they profited on accelerating urbanization and improvements in transportation.

Yet health reformers sold more than health. They sold the promise of surviving amidst economic uncertainty. In a world upturned by unpredictable markets, health reformers promised Americans control over their regimens and thereby their health. Further, they boasted that their system saved them money on groceries, spared them precious time cooking, and empowered them with the health they needed to get ahead. Seen in light of its integration with the marketplace economy, antebellum health reform appears not as a reactionary movement aimed at suppressing the evils of a new world, but as a forward-looking health program for the new capitalist age.