Sylvester Graham Biography

Activist, Writer, Religious Figure (1794–1851)
Minister and lecturer Sylvester Graham was a major figure of the 19th century dietary reform movement and was also known as the person behind Graham crackers.


Born on July 5, 1794, in West Suffield, Connecticut, Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister before becoming a leading figure in the temperance movement, advocating lifestyle choices that included eating fresh fruits and vegetables and decreasing sex drive. He called for relying on homemade wheat bread and is believed to have come up with the Graham cracker. He died on September 11, 1851.

Early Life

Sylvester Graham was born on July 5, 1794, in West Suffield, Connecticut. His father, a clergyman who was 72 when Graham was born, died when the boy was a toddler, and Graham's mother later suffered from emotional and mental trauma. Graham grew up in various households and, after trying different vocations, turned to the ministry as well, eventually becoming a Presbyterian clergyman. He and Sarah Earl married in the mid-1820s, and Graham went on to work for the Pennsylvania Temperance Society.

Dietary Reform and Bread

Graham took on English minister William Metcalfe's ideas on vegetarianism and abstinence, and reported that his health improved after adopting such practices. Graham advocated adhering to a diet where meat, condiments, coffee and tea were eliminated, focusing instead on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Graham's work with bread was particularly pronounced, as seen in his 1837 book Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making. He called for the use of coarser, whole wheat flour and thought that bread should be homemade, emphasizing a mother's touch while pointing out that industrialized bread had the nutrient-rich layer of bran removed and unhealthy ingredients added to whiten flour. By the late 1820s, he or one of his followers was the creator of a now ubiquitous snack found in modern supermarkets—the Graham cracker.

Ideas on Sex

Graham, who left the ministry and became an in-demand lecturer, preached that his recommendations on diet could help stave off cholera, which was having a major outbreak in the 1830s. Other Graham lifestyle recommendations, which he felt had implications for moral character, included wearing loose-fitting clothing (with the belief that garments should be utilitarian and not constrictive), taking cold baths, sleeping on hard bedding, having three scheduled meals without snacks, unheated food, dancing, exercising and relaxing—though there were strict parameters on making sure everything was balanced.

Graham's advocacy of moderation also touched on sexual activity, where he argued that it was in one's best interest to avoid foods outside of his plan so as to encourage a decreased libido, a preferred state for a balanced body and to avoid gluttony. He was a believer in phrenology as well, a now discredited system which argued that modes of behavior can be inferred from the shape of the skull.

Grahamite Movement

Those who followed Graham's ideas came to be known as "Grahamites." Graham boarding houses that catered to his recommendations were created, though the lecturer himself was not part of the enterprise. The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity was established by a Boston Grahamite as well in 1837, that same year that Graham himself co-founded The American Physiological Society.

Graham's teachings also inspired controversy, as he was critiqued by some via media and literally besieged by bakers and butchers for his anti-commercial stance on bread. Additionally, he was seen as a source of outrage in Maine for speaking openly about sexual activity.


Though Graham was a preacher of moderation, he was often overworked, and by 1839, had retired from lecturing, working as a poet and struggling with physical and mental health issues. Nonetheless, in 1850 he was still able to co-found with Metcalfe another organization, the American Vegetarian Society. Over the years, some of Graham's tenets were incorporated into various parts of the U.S. food system, with John Harvey and W.K. Kellogg particularly making use of Graham's grains in their breakfast cereal products.

Graham died on September 11, 1851, at the age of 57, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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