I’m one of those people who takes solace in the fact that the human species never changes much. Far from being dismayed to discover that our ancestors displayed the same silly behaviors we do today, I’m deeply comforted. If I could have a piece of hieroglyphic art hanging on my wall, it would feature an image of an ancient Egyptian father, who, having just stubbed his toe on his daughter’s bronze age Big Wheel, would be depicted hopping about on one foot, a stream of pictographic obscenity issuing from his mouth.
I’m similarly comforted whenever I think about the Reverend Sylvester Graham, by all accounts one of the most obnoxious and irritating popular figures of his era (that being the early 1800’s). A Presbyrtarian minister and lecturer of great renown, he was the prototypical fad diet promoter, a sort of Dr. Robert Atkins on a pulpit. He was a prominent vegetarian and inventor of the so-called “Graham System”, a complete, morning-to-night lifestyle program that emphasized vegetarianism, fresh foods, frequent bathing, good cheer (especially when eating), hard mattresses, open windows during sleep (no matter what the weather), and abstinence from coffee, tobacco and liquor. He believed that the animal human beings most closely resemble is the orangutan, and that ketchup and mustard cause insanity.
While it’s certainly an oversimplification to claim that the centerpiece of his “system” was sexual abstinence, it’s fair to say that he worried a lot about people having sex. Meat and spicy foods, he felt, led to unnatural lust. And unnatural lust, well, that led to everything from indigestion to epilepsy. Male masturbation was especially problematic for Graham, since he believed it led to premature death (particularly of one’s offspring, whom he believed would be conceived from worn-out sperm). For this reason, he took an avid interest in young people, especially teenagers. He preached to them widely, and even succeeded in implementing his dietary regimen in schools, most famously at Oberlin college in Ohio. There, his diet was briefly implemented on a campus-wide basis, though discontinued when students stopped eating on campus, and a faculty member was fired for sneaking contraband pepper into the dining hall.
Still, Graham’s conviction and charisma made him a lifestyle celebrity of the highest order. His lectures drew thousands, though they were so frank and graphic that polite women fainted by the score at his discourse. His books, best sellers all, were no better, and at the time were dubbed the most disgusting works yet composed in the English language. However by the 1840’s “Grahamites” were everywhere. Restaurants and hotels served Graham diets, and Graham boarding houses, where people could retreat to immerse themselves fully in the Grahamite lifestyle, dotted the East Coast.
Eventually, of course, the trend peaked. Graham faded from the public eye and died in 1851 at the age of 58. Even so, his legacy can be seen everywhere today, especially on daytime television, where thanks in part part to Graham, talk show hosts never run out of things to say about about erectile dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome and nocturnal discharges.