July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
Sylvester Graham’s preposterous theories about food and health inadvertently created the American diet-fad industry
>In 1 Timothy, St. Paul advises his young disciple: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and for thine often [i.e., common] infirmities.” It might amuse St. Paul to learn that after nearly two thousand years the United States government finally agrees with him. In its most recently issued guidelines for nutrition, the federal government acknowledged that a modest intake of alcohol is not harmful and might even have benefits for the heart.
This is an astonishing development. After all, if there has been one consistency in dietary advice through the years, it has been —to use the title of an amusing book on food fads—"If you like it, don’t eat it.” Virtually everything that people regard as delicious or pleasurable, from cream to gin, has been regularly denounced by diet “experts,” beginning at least as far back as Pythagoras—a vegetarian as well as a mathematician —in the sixth century B.C.
Heaven knows there have been few other consistencies. Hardly a single food that is extolled as the very elixir of life itself in one book is not excoriated as the purest poison in another.
This raises an interesting question. Why is so much that is written about nutrition, even at the tail end of the most scientific of centuries, such selfevident twaddle?
There are two reasons, I think. The first is that it has only been in this century that nutrition became a science at all. The word vitamin , for instance, entered the English language only in 1912, when these substances were first being chemically analyzed and their role in human nutrition determined. And there are still vast gaps in our scientific knowledge, largely because of severe ethical constraints on experimenting on human beings. As a result, we know much more about the real nutritional needs of, say, chickens than we do of our own species.
This has left plenty of room for the philosophers and cranks, who dominated the field of nutrition in the nineteenth century, to continue to be influential, aided and abetted, of course, by the gullible, often ignorant, and always headline-hunting media.
The second reason is that there appears to be a nearly bottomless market for nutritional nonsense, just as there is for astrological advice. Hundreds of diet books are published every year in this country. Their authors crisscross the land on lecture tours to feed this longing for a Rosetta stone to the secret of good health and longevity and to make very tidy incomes in the process. It will not surprise the readers of this column to learn that the man who first discovered this market, and exploited it profitably, was an American. His name was Sylvester Graham.
Graham was born in West Suffield, Connecticut, on July 4, 1794. His father was seventy-two at the time and had already sired sixteen children by two wives. He had been the minister at the local church for fifty years and as such had been one of the most important and respected men in the community. But when he died, two years after his last child’s birth, his wife soon found herself unable to cope with raising seven children alone with little income.
A few years later the local probate court ruled that Graham’s mother was “in a deranged state of mind.” Graham himself wrote years later, “My mother’s health sank under her complicated trials, the family was broken up, and . . . I fell into the hands of stranaers.” This fall in Status from minister’s son to foundling deeply affected Graham, who began to exhibit increasing eccentricities, including a profound egocentrism, and later would suffer several nervous breakdowns.
And while the family was restored in later years, when Graham and his mother went to live with one of his older siblings in Newark, New Jersey, his education was hit-and-miss at best. Regardless, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister. He enrolled in Amherst Academy, in 1823, when he was nearly thirty. But his unpopularity with his fellow students caused him to be expelled on a trumped-up charge after only one quarter. But even in that one quarter, he made himself remembered as “an ardent and eloquent speaker, arrogant and forceful.” One faculty member thought him a “stage actor,” which was intended as no compliment, but the trait would stand Graham in good stead later in his career. Thereafter he studied privately with a minister and was ordained in 1826, the year he married a woman who had nursed him through one of his breakdowns.
The following year he earned his first income as a minister when he was paid ten dollars to preach a sermon. But Graham soon began widening the field of his endeavors beyond simple soul saving. In 1830 he became a lecturer for the Pennsylvania Society for Discouraging the Use of Ardent Spirits. Like many early temperance societies, this one aimed only at moderating the thenstaggering per capita consumption of alcohol, but Graham from the first advocated total abstinence.
Soon he was talking about diet and sex as well as alcohol. Graham boasted that he never read books and developed his theories entirely on his own. But he was familiar with several medical writers of the time—when medicine was just beginning its conversion from an art to a science—and, indeed, he plagiarized several of them in his own books and pamphlets.
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.
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.