Sylvester Graham was such a severe critic of meat and refined flour that he provoked a near-riot in 1837 among Boston’s bakers and butchers.
Graham believed in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. He urged his followers to drink cold water, to bathe often and to eat meals at exactly the same time every day. He also advocated cheerfulness at meals, open windows, daily tooth brushing, sleeping on very hard mattresses and sex only for procreation, never just for fun.
Sylvester Graham attracted a huge following, but he had his critics. Some thought him a nut. Butchers and bakers thought him threat enough to attack him at his hotel in Boston.
No Sex, Please
Sylvester Graham was born in Suffield, Connecticut, on July 5, 1794, from a long line of physicians and ministers. He was the 17th child of the 72-year-old Rev. John Graham, who died soon after his birth. Unsurprisingly, his mother couldn’t cope with the large family and was in and out of hospitals. So Sylvester was raised by a series of relatives.
He was ordained in 1826 as a Presbyterian minister after a brief stint at Amherst College. Then he preached in New Jersey for a while.
He ultimately turned to dietary reform after suffering a long illness. He designed his health regime to curb the human sex drive, which he believed depleted the body.
In 1829 he invented the graham cracker, made with unsifted whole wheat flour. It bears little resemblance to today’s commercial brand, made with refined bleached flour, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial flavor. Graham would have abhorred those ingredients.
Sylvestr Graham advocated a Spartan lifestyle because he feared the weakening of traditional institutions and the ensuing disorder – within himself as well as the world at large. A friend once explained Graham didn’t always adhere to his own Grahamite principles.
Many others did, for Graham also invented the health food fad. His graham flour sold widely, and Graham boardinghouses sprang up to save lost carnivores. He published his lectures, which also sold well. Schools like Oberlin College and Catherine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary put students on his diet until they rebelled.
In 1837, he published his Treatise on Bread: and Bread-Making in which he advocated high-fiber, chemical-free bread. The treatise complained about ‘almost a total and universal carelessness about bread.’ He wrote that thousands of people ‘eat the most miserable trash that can be imagined, and never seem to think that they can have anything better.’
No wonder the bakers got angry. The butchers weren’t happy either with his vegetarian crusade. When Graham in 1837 lectured on his food theories in Boston, the butchers and bakers marched on the hotel where he spoke. Grahamites on the roof of the hotel dispersed the angry men by dropping bags of lime on them.
The Grahamite fad eventually died down. Graham had claimed his Grahamite lifestyle could help people live to 100. That claim, however, was undermined by his own death at the age of 57.
Sylvester Graham died Sept. 11, 1851 in Northampton, Mass., after receiving opium enemas on his doctor’s orders.
This story about Sylvester Graham was updated in 2023.