Moral Fiber

by by Anna Rotman


Even though Ralph Waldo Emerson once called him “the prophet of bran bread and pumpkins,” Sylvester Graham was a serious man. A preacher by training and a lecturer by profession, he concerned himself with nothing less than the human condition. In his “Lecture to Young Men on Chastity,” published in Providence in 1834, Graham argued that people of all ages and of both sexes were causing themselves, and thus society, to become “debased, degraded, diseased and destroyed” by indulging in sensory excess of all kinds, but most significantly, in “self-pollution.”

A man chasing fame, he saw his Northampton, MA home one day becoming a museum in his honor. Were he alive today, though, Graham would likely not be impressed by his legacy. He became a household name, to be found in cupboards and pantries across America, but the graham crackers that we know bear little resemblance to the cure he developed for America’s most shameful ills. Indeed, the innocent s’more is a perversion of Graham’s enduring contribution to American childhood.



Graham developed “the science of human life” according to which self-pollution, lasciviousness, and, most acutely, masturbation, could cause almost every possible malady. He outlined his specific worries in On Chastity: it was not so much the “mere loss of semen” with which he concerned himself, but the “peculiar excitement, and the violence of the convulsive paroxysms, which produce the mischief.” He addressed his speech to young men, but was quick to point out that women were only by nature slightly less at risk than their male counterparts. He geared his teachings towards the younger generation because he had already written off the older perpetrators. The damage was too significant; the vice was too entrenched. Graham’s background as a minister and his readings in the new field of physiology heavily informed his work. Stephen Nissenbaum, in Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America, explains: “Graham wished to purge the souls of his generation by cleansing their debauched bodies.”

Masturbation, and even excessive consensual intercourse, was a crime of the body and of the mind, and each one fed the other, leading the weakened victim down a spiral of physical and psychological impairment. His problems with this depraved sport were manifold. Besides the violence of the act, the effort that it required, and the exhaustion that ensued, there were three other issues at stake.

The first was the early age at which men, in particular, fell prey to the habit, a phenomenon that he saw as “one of the most alarming evils in our land.” Because of this, entire generations were reaching adulthood debilitated, “with a broken-down constitution, with a body full of disease, and with a mind in ruins.” The next was that the tyrannical occupation was a solitary one. The perpetrator did not need the consent of any other person and therefore the only prerequisite was an easy one: privacy. It seemed as though there was nothing stopping young people from indulging freely whenever they found themselves without company. The final and perhaps most threatening repercussion of self-pollution was the guilt that Graham claimed naturally ensued. This was the most insidious of problems: “every one who is guilty of it, feels an instinctive shame, and deep self- loathing, even in his secret solitude, after the unclean deed is done!” The depression that followed reckless masturbation posed a great threat to society: men were becoming listless, indecisive, and pessimistic. Today, this sounds like stale rhetoric, but Nissenbaum argues that Graham was the first writer to express “a new fear of human sexuality that would become one of the trademarks of the late nineteenth century.”




Graham was steadfastly ambitious and committed to curing this social disease. In an obituary printed in 1851 in The Farmer’s Cabinet, an Amherst, NH newspaper, the author describes the tireless lecturer: “His character evinced energy and decision, and his influence on the public mind was rather beneficial than deleterious.” The medical establishment was not so generous, however, and heavily criticized his theories. Perhaps this was because, like other health reformers, he was a proponent of preventive medicine and criticized mainstream doctors’ risky and ill-conceived procedures. He didn’t believe in carefully mixed antidotes or indiscriminate scalpel use. Instead, his prescription was for disciplined dieting and exercise.

Graham advised sufferers to stay away from strong foods—such as meat, alcohol, spices, and caffeine—for they would stimulate the organs too much. Furthermore, he encouraged regular exercise (except riding on horseback if it caused “involuntary emissions”), sleeping on a hard bed, and cold baths. In On Chastity, he taught his followers that all bodily systems were connected: “[E]very irritation and undue excitement of the brain and stomach and intestines, are calculated to continue the involuntary emissions; while the latter, in turn, keep up and increase the morbid irritability of those organs.” Furthermore, he considered the stomach “the grand central organ” that affected and was influenced by all the others.

As such, digestion was of the utmost importance, and anything stalling it would harm to individual physical and mental health, as well as the entire society’s hopes for a better future. Thus, Graham waged his greatest battle against white bread. Bread was changing quickly in the early 19th century, and he did not like the direction it was headed. In the growing market economy, bread production had left the household and Americans were suffering because of it. Graham reviled public bakeries, which produced multiple batches at once, relying on mechanization, processed flour, and additives. These breads lacked nutritional value and caused constipation, which Graham related directly to the urge for self-stimulation. “Farinaceous food, properly prepared, is incomparably the best alignment for such a sufferer...taken with or without a little good unfermented molasses, at proper times, and freely masticated, will digest easily and pleasantly, and will be sure to keep up a regular and healthy motion of the bowels.” It is for this exact purpose that Graham developed the recipe for graham bread, later to be transformed into a less perishable, drier cracker.




Nissenbaum explains that graham bread “was in fact nothing more than traditional homegrown and homemade whole wheat bread with a few added twist in preparation and an aggressively ideological rationale.” Social critics in the 1830s, including Graham, feared that the growing dependence on the unstable and anonymous marketplace was affecting American morals. This decade, then, saw the rise of prescriptive literature, informing eager young men and women on how best to run a household, bargain with shop clerks, and curb unseemly urges. Graham bread, however, was not fated to restore Americans to responsible self-subsistence. By the 1840s, bakeries were producing it en masse and historians speculate that entrepreneurial physicians were selling graham crackers as we know them as early as the 1860s.


Graham was a radical and was regarded with a mix of amusement and disdain, but that is not to say that a great number of Americans did not follow his recommendations for generations to come. James C. Whorton argues in his article “Patient, Heal Thyself: Popular Health Reform Movements as Unorthodox Medicine,” that he was the main voice of the health reform movement. It certainly helped that his home base was New England: Whorton describes Boston as the “smug center of reformist sentiment.” It was such a hotbed that angry Bostonian butchers who were threatened by Graham’s promotion of vegetarianism mobbed him on more than one occasion.

The illustrious reformer died at the age of 57. In his final months, he broke his own diet by eating meat and drinking alcohol in a last-ditch effort to cure himself. The physician who cared for him in his last year was unable to diagnose his illness, and, in an ironic twist, blamed it on the “somewhat irregular life” he had led.


ANNA ROTMAN B’14 loves steak.