Sylvester Graham

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The Reverend Sylvester Graham (July 5, 1794 – September 11, 1851), a 19th-century Presbyterian minister, was an American dietary reformer, best known for his emphasis on vegetarianism, the temperance movement, and his invention of graham bread, graham flour, and the graham cracker.


Sylvester moved from one relative's home to another and picked up various trades after losing both parents. He worked as a farm hand, clear, and teacher before deciding on the ministry as an antidote for his poor health. He entered Amherst College in 1823 but did not graduate mainly due to unpopularity among peers.[1] He married Sarah Earl, daughter of a Rhode Island sea captain, and was ordained in 1826 as a Presbyterian minister.

In 1829, he invented graham bread,[2] and the recipe first appeared in The New Hydropathic Cookbook (New York, 1855). Graham bread was made from unsifted flour and free from chemical additives such as alum and chlorine. Graham argued that chemical additives in bread made it unwholesome. It tasted good according to local accounts. The use of additives by bakeries was a common practice during the Industrial Revolution to make bread whiter in color, and more commercially appealing. Darker wheat bread was considered the fare of country rubes. Refined bread was a status symbol of the middle class because of its "purity and refinement" in its color and was purchased, rather than home-made. Graham believed that a firm bread made of coarsely ground whole-wheat flour was more nutritious and healthy.

Graham was also inspired by the temperance movement and preached that a vegetarian diet was a cure for alcoholism and sexual urges. The main thrust of his teachings was to curb lust. While alcohol had useful medicinal qualities, it should never be abused by social drinking. For Graham, an unhealthy diet stimulated excessive sexual desire which irritated the body and caused disease. While Graham developed a significant following known as Grahamites, he was also ridiculed by the media and the public for his unwavering zealotry. According to newspaper records,[which?] many women fainted at his lectures when he aired opinions both on sexual relations and the wearing of corsets.

In 1837 Graham had difficulty finding a place to speak in Boston because of a threat of riots by butchers and commercial bakers. In 1850 he helped found the American Vegetarian Society modeled on a similar organization established in Great Britain. He died the following year at the age of 57 in Northampton, Massachusetts at his home. Graham influenced notable figures in America, including Horace Greeley and John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek Sanitarium fame.

Of his numerous writings, the best known were Lectures on the Science of Human Life (Boston, 1839), of which several editions of the two-volume work were printed in the United States and sales in England were widespread, and Lectures to Young Men on Chastity.


Grahamites, as Graham's followers were called, accepted the teaching of their mentor with regard to all aspects of lifestyle.[3] As such, they practiced abstinence from alcohol, frequent bathing, daily brushing of teeth, vegetarianism, and a generally sparse lifestyle. Graham also was an advocate of sexual abstinence, especially from masturbation, which he regarded as an evil that inevitably led to insanity. He felt that all excitement was unhealthful, and spices were among the prohibited ingredients in his diet. As a result, his dietary recommendations were inevitably bland, which led to the Grahamites consuming large quantities of graham crackers, Graham's own invention. White bread was strongly condemned by Graham and his followers, however, as being essentially devoid of nutrition, a claim echoed by nutritionists ever since. Some Grahamites lost faith when their mentor died at the age of fifty-seven. Other than the crackers, the Grahamites' major contribution to American culture was probably their insistence on frequent bathing. However, Graham's doctrines found later followers in the persons of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith Kellogg. Their invention of corn flakes was a logical extension of the Grahamite approach to nutrition.

Grahamism was influential in the vegan movement. Sylvester Graham focused on meat and milk, which he believed to be the cause of sexual urges. In fact, he claimed animal byproducts produced lust; Grahamism thus rejected meat, animal byproducts, and alcohol in order to develop a purer mind and body.

Quite popular in the 1860s–1880s, Grahamism rapidly lost momentum and is now remembered mostly for its graham crackers, even though graham crackers do not resemble the graham bread he ate.

Graham on diet[edit]

Around 1829, Graham invented the Graham diet, which consisted mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole wheat and high fiber foods, and excluded meat and spices altogether (see vegetarianism). Very fresh milk, cheese, and eggs were permitted in moderation, and butter was to be used "very sparingly".[4]

Graham believed that adhering to the diet would prevent people from having impure thoughts and in turn would stop masturbation (thought by Graham to be a catalyst for blindness and early death[5]) among other things. He was a prolific writer and speaker for his cause, which was sternly opposed to "bad habits" of the body and mind. During the 1830s, the diet had a moderate response, mostly from the puritanical faction of the American public. At one point it was strictly imposed on students of Oberlin College by David Campbell (a disciple of Graham's). During the period in which it was enforced, some rebellious students ate off-campus, and at one point a professor was fired for refusing to stop bringing his own pepper for use with his meals. The diet was eventually dropped by the college in 1841 following a public outcry.

A variation of the graham cracker, invented by Sylvester Graham as a staple for the diet, eventually became part of American cuisine.

Graham's opinions on masturbation[edit]

As a Christian reform physiologist, Graham explored the relationship between sexuality and the mind, body, and health, rooting his beliefs in the Christian tradition. His piece On Self-Pollution, published in 1834, contributed to the masturbation scare in antebellum America. He believed youthful masturbation was dangerous to children's health because of the immaturity of their reproductive organs.[6]

Selected works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "SYLVESTER GRAHAM (1794-1851)". Suffield Library. Retrieved October 22, 2012. 
  2. ^ "Sylvester Graham". The Great Idea Finder. Retrieved October 22, 2012. 
  3. ^ "USA: 19th Century Sylvester Graham (1795-1851)". International Vegetarion Union. Retrieved October 22, 2012. 
  4. ^ Ellen White Estate
  5. ^ Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (Ed.), Attitudes toward Sex in Antebellum America, 2006, p. 16.
  6. ^ Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (Ed.), Attitudes toward Sex in Antebellum America, 2006, p. 15, 72.

Further reading[edit]

  • Smith, Andrew F. Ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and drink in America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2004).
  • PD-icon.svg "Graham, Sylvester". Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). 1911. p. 318. 
  • Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1999).
  • "Recent Deaths"; New York Daily Times; September 18, 1851; page 2. (Accessed from The New York Times (1851–2003), ProQuest Historical Newspapers, September 19, 2006)
  • Nissenbaum, Stephen, Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform. Praeger (1980)

External links[edit]