Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and reformer, is best known for his creation of the Graham cracker. He also put forth the idea that moderation is beneficial, and that certain foods and behaviors are detrimental to both physical and spiritual health. It is not enough to practice moderation in all things, he claimed, because some things are simply not good, either for spiritual or physical reasons, or both. These theories made Graham a central figure in the health reform movement of the 1800s.
Graham was born on July 5, 1794, in West Suffield, Connecticut. His father, the clergyman John Graham, was seventy-two years of age at the time of his birth. Within two years, his father was dead, and Graham was raised by various relatives.
Graham worked as a farm-hand, clerk, and teacher before preparing for the ministry. He married Sarah Earl in 1826. In 1830 he was made general agent for the Pennsylvania Temperance Society, and he began to study human physiology , diet , and regimen. He then launched himself on a lecture career that took him up and down the Atlantic Coast.
He advocated bread at least twelve hours old, made of the whole of the wheat, and coarsely ground. He also recommended hard mattresses, open bedroom windows, cold shower baths, loose and light clothing, daily exercise, vegetables and fruits, rough (whole-grain) cereals, pure drinking water, and cheerfulness at meals. He taught that temperance included both physical and moral reform.
In 1832, Graham edited Luigi Cornaro's Discourse on a Sober and Temperate Life. This discourse was translated into many languages and first published in the United States in 1788, after which it went through at least twelve editions. Cornaro wrote of three social evils: adulation and ceremony, heresy, and intemperance. Intemperance was, to Cornaro, the principal vice, and he wrote that a person should choose "to live in accordance with the simplicity of nature, to be satisfied with very little, to follow the ways of holy self-control and divine reason, and to accustom himself to eat nothing but that which is necessary to sustain life."
In 1837, Sylvester Graham wrote his Treatise on Bread and Bread Making, which advocated the use of Graham flour, made from coarsely ground whole-wheat kernels, and instructed wives to bake their own bread. Perhaps as a result of his impact on their business, which was reduced by the making of homemade bread, he was attacked by a mob of bakers. Meanwhile, Graham flour showed up in barrels and Graham boarding houses sprang up to minister to the new demands.
Graham influenced others to take up the cause of health reform. John Harvey Kellogg, while working as an apprentice typesetter, was exposed to a compilation of articles on health, including Graham's Health, or How to Live, a series of six pamphlets published by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and he became intensely interested in Graham's dietetic and sanitary reforms. In his spare moments Kellogg read all of Graham's writings. Ralph Waldo Emerson made reference to Sylvester Graham as the "poet of bran and pumpkins." Graham died in 1851.
Louise E. Schneider
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Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), American reformer, was a temperance minister and an advocate of healthful living.
Sylvester Graham was born on July 5, 1794, in West Suffield, Conn. His father, a 72-year-old clergyman, died 2 years later. Graham was raised by relatives who gave little attention to his development, and he worked at scattered tasks until he was 19 years old, when he began to cultivate his mind. He became a teacher, but poor health forced him to reconsider his future. He determined to become a minister and entered Amherst College in 1823. There his histrionic manner was scorned by fellow students, and he withdrew from college.
In 1826 Graham married and 3 years later became a Presbyterian minister. He had joined the crusade against drink and in 1830 became an agent of the Pennsylvania Temperance Society. His ardor for the cause led him to study anatomy and to consider the effects of liquor and other substances on the human body. He branched out in his lectures, dealing not only with the evils of drink and gluttony but also with the need for hygienic care of the body. To Graham and his followers the issue was not only health but moral living. His Lecture on Epidemic Diseases Generally and Particularly the Spasmodic Cholera (1833) brought together some of his findings, which eventually led him to prescribe physical exercise, sensible clothing, continence, good sleeping habits, and vegetarianism.
Graham's lectures drew concerned audiences and created both friends and foes. His talks on chastity, though moral in tone and intention, shocked the delicate. His emphasis on a discriminatory diet offended traditions of heavy eating and meat consumption. His advocacy of homemade bread from unbolted wheat, with which his name was ultimately identified (Graham crackers), roused the ire of bakers. Graham's partisans kept Graham boardinghouses and issued Graham's Journal of Health and Longevity (1837-1839). They circulated such works as his Treatise on Bread and Bread making (1837) and Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1839).
Graham's vogue faded as suddenly as it had flourished, partly because his disciples divided into parts what he had seen as a grand design. His own increasing emphasis on scriptural authority for personal hygiene failed to attract wide interest. He planned four volumes on the subject but wrote only one before his death on Sept. 11, 1851. Friends completed The Philosophy of Sacred History in 1855.
A memoir of his life was included in Graham's Lectures on the Science of Human Life (repr. 1858). Information on him is in Franklin B. Dexter, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College with Annals of the College History (1885), and James H. Trumbull, ed., The Memorial History of Hartford County, Connecticut, 1633-1884 (2 vols., 1886).
Nissenbaum, Stephen, Sex, diet, and debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and health reform, Chicago, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1988, 1980. □
Sylvester Graham, 1794–1851, American reformer and Presbyterian minister, b. West Suffield, Conn. He advocated a vegetable diet as a cure for intemperance and the use of coarsely ground whole-wheat flour. Graham flour was named for him.