Who Were The Fathers of the Counterculture Movement?

The Hippie Cult - Post Magazine 1967
The Hippie Cult – Post Magazine 1967

What’s interesting is that most people associate the counterculture movement exclusively with happenings of the 1960s. No doubt that in San Francisco, California something magical was underway. It was a sociology experiment on a grand scale. Bold, daring and inventive idealists were looking for a new way of living and interacting with one another. It would become the new hip dionysian “Summer of Love” generation. This came complete with the invention of psychedelics, hippies, outdoors rock concerts and blindingly colorful posters documenting this sign of the times.

However, it’s not common knowledge that a counterculture movement had been evolving and growing in Germany & Southern California since the turn of the century some sixty years earlier!  Scientists, professors, literary authors, artists,  naturalists, immigrants, songwriters, actors and TV personalities will all play a part in shaping what would become the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

The German Pioneers

More times than not, the early pioneers were German. However the English, Swedish and Americans are represented , as well.  In 1896 the Lebensreform (life reform) was initiated in Germany and promoted:

  • cultural reform
  • vegetarianism
  • nudism & sexual reform
  • health food and economic reform
  • communalism
  • religious & social reform
  • natural medicine
  • sexual reform
  • clothing reform
  • women’s liberation as well as for children and animals
  • support garden towns & settlement movements
  • soil reform
  • abstinence from alcohol

There were many social camping and hiking groups throuout Germany in this period.  These tribesmen would trek many miles and pitch re-usable camps along the way.  It was 1895 and Hermann Hoffmann along with Karl Fischer  founded the “Wandervogel” (translation Wandering Birds) which would become 50,000 strong!  The members were usually teenagers from middle class homes. They would hit the road singing their songs practice the life-reform doctrine (above) but, were opposed to the bourgeois. The common denominators and link to the 60s counterculture movement is obvious.

In 1900 (for about twenty years) Ascona, Switzerland would become the “turn of the century” San Francisco. Those looking for modern life style alternatives (spiritualism, naturalism, health food, sun worship, surrealism and psychotherapy, etc.) would find their way to Ascona. It was popular world wide and became a mecca for  healthy living and supporting life reform doctrines.

Pilgrimage To America

Nature Boy
by eden ahbez

We can see German immigrants creating a life style template that will shape things to come. Here is a time line of only a few noted figures (most of whom) arrived and settled  in America:

  • Dr. Carl Schultz (nature doctor) – 1885
  • Bill Pester – 1906 (existing as Natural Man – living totally in the wild – known as “The Original Hippie”!)
  • Professor Arnold Ehret – 1914 (author – Rational Fasting – 1914) (advocated growing your hair and beard out)
  • John and Vera Richter – 1917 (“Eutropheon” cafeteria)
  • Hermann Hesse –  1927 (author – Steppenwolf-1927)
  • Maximillian Sikinger – 1935 (existing as Natural Man – living totally wild in Nature)

This would eventually lead us up to the 1930s – 40s and the formation of  “The Nature Boys” in Southern California. They would be the first American group to adhere to the natural doctrines and life reforms set forth by these pioneers. Many of the German immigrants joined “The Nature Boys” and traveled around with them.

It is important to note that there were more than a few stand out personalities in The Nature Boys. The two that come to mind however are eden ahbez (spelled in short case by choice) and “Gypsy Boots” Bootzin.  Notably, eden ahbez was a successful songwriter creating a Number #1 Hit for Nat King Cole…”Nature Boy”.  His songs were well covered and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Doris Day, The Ink Spots, Sam Cooke, Brian Wilson and Grace Slick, to name a few.

Gypsy Boots Bootzin was famous for making revolutionary life style changes like fitness programs, health foods and yoga popular in mainstream America.  He authored two books “Barefeet and Good Things to Eat”  & “The Gypsy In Me” which afforded him many followers.  He personally continued the counterculture movement of  The Nature Boys and the German’s life reform, on his own. Gypsy Boots opened up the “Health Hut” (Beverly Blvd – Los Angeles) which was America’s (or the world’s) first health food shop.  He became famous and was a regular on popular TV variety and talk shows at the time. Gypsy Boots was a true celebrity of the day.  He was always seen in parades, at sporting events, speaking at pop festivals and was a spokesperson for many health products.

The Psychedelic Pioneers

The English and The Swiss would bring the literary and chemical elements from across the pond.  In 1938 Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann was experimenting with medicinal plants Squill and Ergot fungus for use in new pharmaceuticals.   Through his research he actually synthesized LSD (Lysergic acid diethyl amide) that year.  But, it wasnt until 1943 (when re-testing) he accidetially absorbed it through his fingers and discovered what he had created. Hofmann was often quoted as saying ” The counterculture movement of the 60s misused the drug and it was criticized unfairly by the political establishment of the day”.  The rest of his life he was a proponent of LSD and its great potential in psychotherapeutic and medicinal research.

English author Aldous Huxley was a literary giant. Although he would pen many books in his career, there are two that are most relative to this article.  Huxley was best know for his novel Brave New World (1938). Its a futuristic novel of dystopia (or  utopia depending on your perspective) of humanity being genetically produced in a bottle. A World Control has them brainwashed since birth and keeps the populous happy and sunny with a drug called soma.

It is a world without sickness, war, suffering, depression, sorrow and pain. But,  it is void of growth, individualism, freedom, art & literature, ambition, emotions, faith, love and pride. Qualities and richness that fills oneself in the journey of being human. Its OK though, because everyone is programmed to be repulsed by such thoughts.

Could certain idealists consider this scenario and equate it to their own suppressed existence in the 1950s?  Maybe enough to start a sociological revolution?  This is still a shocking read, even today.

The second book from Aldous Huxley is The Doors of Perception / Heaven & Hell (1952-54). This short book tells of his experimentation and vivd accounts from using the drug Peyote (mescaline). His acute ability to convey his experiences in detail and formidable intellect are on display here. This must have been wildly popular and a hand book for the counterculture movement. Huxley and his wife Laura were acquaintances of both Dr. Albert Hofman and Dr. Timothy Leary. He felt hallucinogens gave the user a visionary experience not unlike those of mystics, saints, and great artists. Aldous Huxley would ingest LSD for most the rest of his life until his death in 1963.

Allot of research and reading went into writing this article. However,  I am beginning to understand how and why the  counterculture movement of the 1960s started and came about.  My purpose was to go back and find the origin of thinking and environments that could unleash what would become a cultural revolution in the 1960s. This history is fascinating and far reaching, but the discovery is joyous. What is missing here are the idealists, artists, musicians, visionaries, free thinkers and new generation that migrated to San Francisco to drop out and create a new sustainable society for themselves. That will be the next installment…stay tuned.