Suffield, Connecticut. 1794. Sylvester, the last in a line of seventeen children, was born. Two years later, his father died—Reverend John Graham was seventy-four—and his mother, left with the burden of raising the younger children, went mad. (Can you blame her?) A succession of neighbors and relatives took in Graham. He worked on a farm, in a paper mill, as a clerk and, finally and unsuccessfully, as a teacher. All this while “falling ill” from time to time.
|Sylvester Graham, Courtesy of |
Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress,
At twenty-nine, better late than never or it’s never too late, he attended Amherst Academy, where his fellow students ostracized him and referred to him derisively as “the mad enthusiast.” (Apparently, he never shut up, a characteristic, or let’s come out and say it, flaw, that he never shook.) An accusation of assault, possibly false, led to expulsion, a nervous breakdown (“mental despondency and wretchedness”) and marriage (in 1826, to the woman, who nursed him back to health).
|Facing the Enemy, c. 1846, Courtesy|
of Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, DIG-pga-03150
In 1839, he published his very magnum opus, 1,200-page, Lectures on the Science of Human Life, which was nothing short of “...an effort to formulate a technique by which solitary individuals could insulate themselves from a constantly threatening world.” The two-volume tome addressed the subjects of: sexuality, morality, diet, temperance, health and hygiene.
|Mount Cleveland in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, May 2006,|
http://en.wikipedia.org [Saturation Added to Photograph]
Sex, according to Graham, was one of the most serious problems Americans faced: “…the body of man, has become a living volcano of unclean propensities and passions” and not the holy temple it was intended to be. To return the body to that pristine state, he had some recommendations. For starters: Cut it out.
Married couples could copulate maybe, once a month tops—he considered married life dull, and so assumed that the sex wouldn’t be too stimulating—and everyone else? How about never? There was, as far as he was concerned, simply too much screwing around. “Graham frequently spoke of desire in terms of ‘aching sensibility’ as if it were something painful and unnatural, like a fever or a toothache.”
|Onanie, Michael von Zichy, |
But, the topic Graham couldn’t address with any semblance of moderation was “the solitary vice.” It was not only “wholly unnatural.” Masturbation, or onanism, as Graham called it, led to impotency in adulthood. Sex was for procreation, not recreation, and the loss of semen was the root of all evil. He was especially outraged that young boys and girls were doing it. According to Graham, parents, servants and other boys were to blame for “teaching” this onerous habit. In fact, seven out of ten children, some as young as four were doing it as often as three times a night and sometimes in groups! Graham didn’t cite sources.
|Sigmund Freud (who had not yet |
founded Psychoanalysis), 1921,
Graham, who advocated cooling the body and eliminating poisons (detoxifying, as it were), urged Americans to embrace the three uns: uncooked, unprocessed and unadulterated. Eat it raw, raw fruits, vegetables.... Against the wisdom of the day favoring cooking, he thought that natural, unprocessed fruits and vegetables were more nutritious. “Reverend Sylvester Graham may have started out from a basis of ascetic morality, but from whatever direction he arrived, he stumbled upon the one principle with which we do not disagree today, the fact that different foods have different values.”
Sylvester Graham wasn’t the first man to say, “You are what you eat.”—French author Anthelme Brillat-Savarin beat him to it, in 1825, with: “Dismoi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”—but he could have been.
|A 1903 Commercial Oven, Courtesy of the New York Public |
Preaching “locavore” a hundred and seventy years before the movement’s time, he spoke out against a capitalist, market economy that was causing “stuff” like food, to be produced farther and farther from home by more and more people who cared less and less about the quality of what they were producing.
His Treatise on Bread and Bread Making implored the ladies to resist the tempting convenience of store-bought bread and, instead, to mill it by hand and bake it at home.
|Harvest Queen, Continental Baking |
Co., Courtesy of the New York
Public Library, www.nypl.org
|1971 Wonder Bread Advertisement,|
This, as you can imagine, did not endear him to commercial bakers. He was mobbed in Boston and saved only when his followers fought them off by throwing lime at them.
* * * *
The early 19th century was a time of widespread religious, moral and political reform. Semi-scientific, health-oriented movements, like homeopathy, hydrotherapy, phrenology and vegetarianism, began to take root.
|Divisions of Organs of Phrenology,|
Courtesy of Prints and
Photographs Division, Library
of Congress, USZC4-4556
By 1840, Graham was one of the most influential social reformers of the time and much in demand on the lecture circuit. Showman that he was, Graham played to SRO crowds in many cities and commanded $300 per an appearance. Controversial, combative, and a little arrogant—he began, pretty much out of the blue, calling himself Dr. Graham and boasting that he had never read a book, not quite true—Graham not only continued to agitate about the importance of proper diet; the debilitating effects of strong drink; the necessity of fresh air, exercise, sexual control and improved hygiene. Americans, he liked to point out were simply too dirty making him, possibly, the father of the Saturday night bath.
|Half-length Portrait of a Woman in a |
Corset, Brushing Her Hair, Courtesy
of Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, USZ62-101143
“Only an age devoted to the lyceum could have taken the punishment.”
His teachings and extensive writings influenced Ellen White. (“Although White received her orders through personal encounters with God, her views on diet bore a striking resemblance to those of…Sylvester Graham.”) It was a small world, after all. Full of crossed-paths or intersections. White hired Dr. John Harvey Kellogg to run her Sanitorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where Graham lectured to the rich and famous, like Teddy Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller.
|Postcard of Battle Creek Sanitorium, Breathing Exercises, c. 1900,|
“As a result of his work, he became the first important exponent of vegetarianism and diet reform… [and] his ideas… ultimately led to the rise of modern American breakfast cereal industry.”
|The Liberator, v. 1, no. 1, 1831|
(an abolitionist newspaper
founded by William Lloyd
His loyal followers, dubbed Grahamites, opened boarding houses in Boston and New York stocked with Graham-approved foods: vegan dishes, pudding, fruit and a cold glass of water for breakfast, no alcohol, cold baths at 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. curfews. The guest list included editor Horace Greeley and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and apparently, did not include Graham. He refused to stay at any of the boarding houses, possibly just because he was contrary.)
|Satellite Image of the Connecticut |
River, One of Northampton's Rivers,
Disgorging Sediment into Long
Island Sound, http://en.wikipedia.org
He died in 1851.
His learned (and only) biographer warns: “While it can be misleading and irresponsible to make too much of apparent parallels between one age and another, it may help us understand Sylvester Graham at the points where his ideas strike us as most alien if we can consider those other points where his fears [an oversexed society, the deleterious effects of a high protein diet, widespread addiction to legal and illegal substances and general, pervasive degradation] seem most to resemble our own.”
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace; Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.
Carson, Gerald; Cornflake Crusade: From the Pulpit to the Breakfast Table.
Deutsch, Ronald M.; The New Nuts Among the Berries.
Francis, Richard; Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia.
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz; Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth- Century America.
Horwitz, Tony; Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.
Levenstein, Harvey; Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, Revised Edition.
————; Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet.
Mariani, John F.; The Dictionary of American Food and Drink.
McElroy, Wendy; “Henry David Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience,’ Part 1,” Freedom Daily, http://www.fff.org/freedom/fd0503e.asp, Jul. 25 2005.
Pollan, Michael; The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.
Reisen, Harriet; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.
Reynolds, David S.; Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.
Richardson, Robert D.; Emerson: The Mind on Fire.
Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont; Eating in America.
Saxton, Martha; Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography.
Titone, Nora; My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Trager, James; The Food Chronology: A Food Lover’s Compendium of Events and Anecdotes, from Prehistory to the Present.
“The mad…”; Trager, 217
“Mental despondency…”; Nissenbaum, 12
“…an effort…”; Ibid, 136
“…the body…”; Horowitz, 97
“Graham frequently…”; Nissenbaum, 22
“…wholly unnatural…”; Horowitz, 97
“Reverend…”; Root, 162
“Dismoi ce que…”; Phrase.org
“White bread…; Root, 232
“…[Graham] denounced…”; Carson, 43
“Only an age….”; Ibid, 50
“Although White…”; Levenstein, Revolution at the Table, 92
“As a…”; Nissenbaum, 4
“…prophet of…”; Richardson, 301
“No one…”; Carson, 56
“While it…”; Nissenbaum, xv