Who Invented Graham Crackers?

Sylvester Graham: A Controversial Dietary Prophet

Graham crackers have become an indispensable part of American culture - and the traditional 'smore. Jamie Grill/Tetra Images/Getty Images

They may seem like an innocuous treat today, but Graham crackers were once on the front lines to save America’s soul. Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham invented Graham Crackers in 1829 as part of a radical new dietary philosophy.

Sickly Sylvester Graham

Silvester Graham was born in West Suffield, Connecticut in 1795 and died in 1851. His early life was marked by such poor health that he chose the ministry as a less stressful profession.

In the 1830s, Graham was a minister in Newark, New Jersey. There he formulated his radical ideas about diet and health—much of which he adhered to for the rest of his life.

The Graham Cracker

Today, Graham may be best remembered for his promotion of unsifted and coarsely ground wheat flour, which he liked for its high fiber content, and for the fact that it was free of commonplace additives alum and chlorine. The flour was nicknamed "graham flour" and is the main ingredient in Graham Crackers.

Graham Crackers represented to Graham all that was good about the earth and its bounty; he believed that a high-fiber diet was a cure for a variety of ailments. In the era in which he grew up, commercial bakers followed a trend for white flour that removed all fiber and nutritive value from wheat which many people, including and especially Sylvester Graham himself, believe sickened a generation of Americans.

Graham's Beliefs

Graham was a fan of abstinence in many forms. From sex, sure, but also from meat (he helped to found the American Vegetarian Society), sugar, alcohol, fat, tobacco, spices, and caffeine. He also insisted on bathing and brushing the teeth on a daily basis (before it was necessarily commonplace to do so).

Graham held a wide variety of beliefs, recommending not only the varieties of abstinence outlined above but also hard mattresses, a lot of open fresh air, cold showers, and loose clothing (likely because tighter clothing outlined the form of the body a little too suggestively). 

In the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, and hard-breakfasting 1830s, vegetarianism was regarded with deep suspicion. Graham was attacked repeatedly (in person!) by bakers and butchers, who were offended and threatened by the power of his reformist message. In fact, in 1837 he was unable to find a place to hold a forum in Boston because local butchers and commercial, additive-loving bakers were threatening to riot.

Graham was a well-known—if not particularly gifted—lecturer. But his message hit home with Americans, many of whom harbored a puritanical streak. Many opened Graham boarding houses where his dietary ideas were enacted. In many respects, Graham predated the mania for wellness and spiritual renewal that would suffuse the later 19th Century in America, and—along with other cultural phenomena like the invention of breakfast cereal—lead to a revolution in the diet of a nation.

Graham's Legacy

Ironically, today’s Graham crackers wouldn’t meet the minister’s approval at all.

Made largely of refined flour and loaded with sugar and trans fat (in this case called "partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil"), most are pale imitations of Graham’s soul-saving biscuit.