Diet fads, health foods, reform movements, and anti-sex crusades are as old as the American Republic. When they are all mixed together, they are as American as a piecrust made with Reverend Sylvester Graham’s eponymous crackers.
If you’ve ever wondered why graham crackers are called that it’s because it was Graham (1794-1851) who invented them in 1829. An advocate of temperance in all things (except fresh air and bathing, which is where I’ll agree with him), Graham thought his unbleached, unsweetened, whole-wheat wholesomeness would prevent the young from committing self-abuse. Yes, the graham cracker was made to fight the debilitating scourge of masturbation. According to Graham, an unhealthy diet rich in sugar, meat, and fat stimulated desire; ergo, change the diet and you change the man.
Richard H. Shyrock’s 1931 paper “Sylvester Graham and the Popular Health Movement, 1830-1870” is a fine entry point into this history. He memorably sums ups Graham’s influence: “People nowadays are seekers after roughage and the whole grain in cereals. They worship fresh air and sun-tan, and the bath room has become the very symbol of American civilization.”
But Shyrock was virtually silent on the sexual aspect of Graham’s crusade. Given the era Shyrock was writing, this makes sense, but it’s also disorientating. After all, sex was key to Graham’s influential worldview and career; he even argued that married couples should cut down on the conjugal stuff. For Shyrock to ignore or downplay Graham’s fundamental teachings reveals the great problem of historiography: the writing of history is always a product of the historian and the historian’s time.
Fifty years after Shyrock, things had changed. In the 1980s, two major books on Graham were published: Stephen Nissenbaum’s Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian American: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform (1981; reviewed here by Martha H. Verbrugge) and Jayme A. Sokolow’s Eros and Modernization: Sylvester Graham, Health Reform and the Origins of Victorian Sexuality in America (1983; reviewed here by Sarah F. McMahon). In addition, John Money’s The Destroying Angel: Sex, Fitness, and Food in the Legacy of Degeneracy Theory, Graham Crackers, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and American Health History (1985; reviewed here by Timothy Perper) expanded on the topic. Graham was no fringe figure.
But let us not snicker too loudly. Before germ theory, people didn’t understand venereal diseases. Syphilis, which ran rampant throughout the 19th century, could lead to insanity. In a culture so influenced by puritanism, sex itself, instead of the still unknown bacterium, was blamed for the results of the disease. People today often roll their eyes at Victorian ignorance and superstition, forgetting that sex was also blamed for AIDS in the 1980s.
Today’s cookie-like version of the graham cracker was not at all what Sylvester Graham had in mind. Unlike many promoters of self-help, he didn’t get rich off his products and ideas, and his cracker was never branded; there’s no secret recipe. The modern version of the cracker may now perhaps be taken as a metaphor of how we like our popular history, on the sweeter side. And, ironically, today’s crackers could potentially make us go blind, if we ate too many of them, via of the long-term effects of too much sugar and untreated diabetes.