By Sally J. Feltner
Sylvester Graham was born in 1794 in Suffield, Connecticut to a seventy-two year old father. An early biographer described him as a “seemingly dyspeptic child with a somewhat feeble constitution” and at that time, it was recommended that he be exposed to open air as a treatment. After his father’s death, Sylvester lived with an uncle for several years doing farm work. When he was twelve, he was sent to school in New York and at fourteen, he began to learn the trade of papermaking.
Graham was 29 years old when he attended Amherst College. “He soon became known for his radical ideas and long speeches and was referred to as “The Stage Actor”. “ He was described as handsome, clever, and imaginative.” Ill health followed him for most of his life with recurring episodes of “consumption” which was the common name at the time for tuberculosis.
He became associated with William Metcalfe of the Bible Christian Church where he converted to the ministry and to the principles of radical dietary reform and vegetarianism. Graham compared man physiologically with the orangutan and to conclude that like the apes, his natural food was vegetarian. He also recommended against alcohol, tea, coffee, spices, condiments, and meat, especially fatty pork.
Due to his ill health, he was interested in diet so he started to study anatomy and physiology. This led him to develop a series of lectures on the topics and traveled widely with his messages on the East Coast. His diet tenets included old whole grain bread, fruits and vegetables, pure water, and coarsely ground whole grain cereals. He believed in open air, cold baths and sleeping on hard mattresses would encourage health and moral reform. Graham believed that moderation in all things is beneficial and that certain foods and behaviors are detrimental to both physical and spiritual health. Graham believed that eating meat stimulated sexual behavior and aggression. His theories made him a central figure in the health reform movement of the 1800’s. Graham started a healing system called “Orthopathy” with Issac Jennings as they believed that Nature knows better than most physicians of his time. He believed that “ pure water, bland food, temperance and chastity could prevent cholera.
Milling of wheat began to put wheat through bolting cloth and was trying to whiten it, the forerunner of refined flour that Sylvester abhorred. Sylvester came up with the idea that if bran was returned into the wheat, the present diet of that time, rich in fat would be alleviated. In other words, the American diet needed fiber and bulk to help prevent constipation and autointoxication.
He wrote his Treatise on Bread and Bread Making in 1837. “He promoted the use of coarser, whole wheat flour and should be made in the home, not commercially. Butchers and bakers were threatened by his preaching of these doctrines and often tried to disrupt his lectures. In one instance in Boston in the same year, they forced cancellation of his lecture with threats of violence. However, Graham moved on to another venue where his supporters dispersed the crowd by throwing lime into it. The lecture then proceeded.
Graham did not stop with just lecturing about diet and disease. He offered advice to young men on sex and emphasized chastity. A number of his lectures were published, including The Young Man’s Guide to Chastity and Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life. He became the subject of jokes and editorials – Ralph Waldo Emerson called him the “poet of bran and pumpkins.” In the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, he wrote: “every farmer knows that if his horse has straw cut with his grain, or hay in abundance, he does well enough. Just so it is with the human species. Man needs the bran in his bread”
Graham was a strict adherent to vegetarianism. He promoted this belief incessantly in his publication, Lectures on the Science of Human Life.
He taught that temperance included both physical and moral reform that reflected his practice of the Natural Hygiene Theory. His other declarations got wilder:
- Food should never be eaten hot.
- It should be chewed slowly and energetically.
- Water should never be taken with meals.
- Tea could produce delirium tremens.
- Condiments caused insanity.
- He thought that excessive lewdness and chicken pie were the cause of cholera.
- He claimed that vegetarianism could cure tuberculosis
Those who followed Graham’s ideas became known as “Grahamites”. As a result, Graham boarding houses were created that advocated his ideas. Graham’s followers included Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greely, Amelia Bloomer, Amos Bronson Alcott and David Henry Thoreau.
As he neared the age of sixty, he retired from lecturing to Northampton, Massachusetts. He took an ice bath every morning, ate old dark bread (whole wheat, of course); the press turned on him and made fun of him. Even though his health was failing, he and William Metcalfe founded the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. He died in 1851 at the age of fifty-seven. He left behind a wife, an 18-year-old son and a married daughter.
What was the legacy of Sylvester Graham? Was he simply the inventor of the Graham cracker or do some of his teachings remain with us today? Many biographies refer to him as the inventor of the Graham Cracker. Who actually produced the first ‘graham crackers’ that Sylvester promoted — is the subject of dispute, however. Some sources assert Graham himself invented the snack in 1829; others claim the graham cracker did not come into being until 1882, 31 years after Graham’s death. (The latter date appears to be based on the year recipes for graham crackers started appearing in cookbooks.
Sylvester Graham still “lives” in the minds of many. It is becoming common that fiber and whole grains, as he preached are back in the food supply. Visit a supermarket where “WHOLE GRAIN is emblazoned on every package of cereal, pasta and bread product. The consumption of meat, especially red meat is maligned again after decades of its promotion. His writings and lectures began the widespread acceptance of dietary reform beginnings that still influence our food choices today, primarily in the recent interest in “whole” foods and as well as with the renewed interest in the vegetarian and vegan communities.
During the 1830’s, Sylvester Graham is known as a founder of the Natural Hygiene movement. His ideas of “auto-intoxication” promoted the dietary practice of detoxification and thus “detox” diets, which will be addressed, in future posts. I wonder what he would think of that great North American culinary treat, “s’mores”? Stay tuned.
Ronald M. Deutsch, The New Nuts Among the Berries, Bull Publishing Company, 1977.
Susan Yager, The Hundred Year Diet, America’s Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight, Rodale, 2010
Libby H. O’Connell, The American Plate: a culinary history in 100 bites, Sourcebooks, Inc. 2014