- Historic Sites
Sylvester Graham’s preposterous theories about food and health inadvertently created the American diet-fad industry
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
It was the cholera epidemic of 1832 that put Graham on the map. Virtually nothing was then known about cholera except its deadly nature. Its causative microorganism would be determined only in the 188Os, and even the fact that it was spread by contaminated water supplies was not understood until the 185Os. People flocked to hear anyone who could tell them about the disease, and Graham, with his histrionic talents, was soon in great demand. The fact that he ascribed cholera to both chicken pie and “excessive lewdness” did not dissuade his audiences in the least.
With the waning of the epidemic, Graham began to lecture widely on diet and sex and their effect on other aspects of human existence. As with most food faddists, he was opposed to almost anything that might be pleasurable. Graham’s basic premise was that anything “stimulating” was automatically debilitating. Stimulants included not only alcohol but also meat, warm baths, and sweets.
But Graham’s most famous advice was that bread should be the mainstay of the diet, should be made from the whole grain, and should be baked at home, by the woman of the house, not the servants. White bread was fashionable because it was more expensive than whole wheat and had a much lighter texture. But Graham, accidentally, was correct that it is nutritionally inferior.
The fact that he ascribed cholera to both chicken pie and “excessive lewdness” did not dissuade his audiences at all.
Graham was soon lecturing up and down the East Coast, often commanding fees of as much as three hundred dollars a night. In a time when fifteen hundred dollars a year was a middleclass income, that was serious money. Graham was delighted with his success. “No man,” he was soon boasting, “can travel by stage or steamboat or go into any part of our country . . . and begin to advocate a vegetable diet. . . without being immediately asked . . . What! Are you a Grahamite?” Indeed, Grahamite hotels and boardinghouses sprang up, catering to people who followed his dietary advice. Horace Greeley, ever earnestly in search of the pure and wholesome, often dined at one in New York.
Equally, others made fun of Graham and his bland diet. Ralph Waldo Emerson described him as the “poet of bran bread and pumpkins.” Even his own hometown newspaper (he lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, the last twelve years of his life) called him “the philosopher of sawdust pudding.”
Others, however, took less tolerant exception. Butchers, not surprisingly, objected to lectures on a strictly vegetarian diet, especially when they were accompanied with vivid descriptions of slaughtering practices. Bakers equally resented calls for baking bread at home and the accusations that they adulterated their bread with bean flour and even chalk and plaster of Paris.
In Boston the butchers and bakers struck back. They intimidated the owner of the lecture hall where Graham was scheduled to talk, and he canceled the booking. Graham went to the notyet-finished Marlborough Hotel, the nation’s first temperance hotel. Its owners courageously allowed him to use it, even though Boston’s mayor said he could not guarantee the peace.
The Grahamites stationed men on the roof with bags of slaked lime. When the butchers and bakers attacked the hotel, they were showered with the lime. In the words of Harper’s magazine, “The eyes had it, and the rabble incontinently adjourned.” Graham’s audience eventually turned to other interests (phrenology and “premature burial” were popular in the 1840s), and Graham retreated to Northampton, where he wrote books and became increasingly eccentric and increasingly ill (a common characteristic, perhaps not coincidentally, among health reformers). He died in 1851, only fiftysix years old.
Some of his early followers went on to fame and fortune. The Kellogg brothers founded a great American industry. But Graham himself is all but forgotten, despite his own prediction that a granite shaft would be erected on his grave and his house would become a place of pilgrimage. (In fact it became a tavern.)
But in one respect Graham is not forgotten. Even today, at morning recess in schools across the country, the children are served a snack: a glass of milk—and graham crackers.