Monday, November 18, 2013

The Strange Saga of Sylvester Graham, in the Key of A

This one is for Lucy, because he asked for it.


One of the stories that students always seem to enjoy in my US1 class is the tale of Reverend Sylvester Graham.  But if you want to understand him, you need to know the context.

The second quarter of the nineteenth century was an anxious time for many Americans.  Most times are, really, but what made this period special was the fact that the anxiety was focused on the rapid and permanent changes in everyday life that were going on at the time.  It’s one thing when governments are rising and falling, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing when your daily routine gets transformed.

This was the era when the Long Revolutions of the nineteenth century – the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Transportation Revolution, the Demographic Revolution – were beginning to make themselves felt.  Oh, they’d started decades earlier, even as far back as the eighteenth century.  But it’s not until you get into the 1820s that people really start to have to change to accommodate them.

This is when the mills at Lowell become a national issue, raising questions about what was the nature of work, how rigidly should we measure time, what were the proper roles for men and women, how separate or intermixed were work and leisure or work and home.  This is when the new techniques of the Agricultural Revolution began to make the farm population surplus, driving them off their rural lands and into the industrializing cities.  This is when the Demographic Revolution took off in America, as cities grew and multiplied and the population soared far faster than Americans were used to.  And faster?  Let’s talk about the Transportation Revolution – canals, to start, and then after 1830 the railroads.  The railroads were the first major advance in the speed of overland travel since the domestication of the horse, and they put an end to the 3mph world that humanity had inhabited since it first started to migrate.

It was a profoundly unsettling time.

And the fact that it was happening at a time of relative political stability just made it easier to notice all those other changes.

As is our habit in times of great societal stress, Americans responded to this with a blizzard of moral reform efforts.  This is just one of the things that we do as a culture to pass the time – much like baseball and creating new and ever more deadly deep-fried foods.  But the Moral Reform Movements of the 1820s, 30s and 40s were in a league by themselves – the only such period in our history that historians tend to capitalize when describing.

These movements drew from the leveling egalitarianism and perfectionism of the Second Great Awakening, which preached that all could be saved and all could be sinless if they so chose.  They drew from the larger political egalitarianism of the emerging Lockean Liberalism of Jacksonian democracy and laissez-faire capitalism, which said that even the most lowly should have an equal chance at success.  And most importantly, they drew from an Enlightenment view of environmentalism, in the sense that the conditions of life – the environment one found oneself – mattered more than biology.  This marked a change from the biological determinism of pre-Enlightenment thinking, a determinism that would return with a vengeance after the Civil War.  The thinking of the Moral Reform Movements held that if you could remove people from toxic environments – or better yet, eliminate those toxic environments completely – you could then create sinless people who could all be saved, in this world and in the next.

Those movements came in three basic varieties.

There were people who sought to transcend the system – to leave all of American culture behind and create something new and fresh.  They were the fewest and least influential of the reformers, though not everything in this category faded away.  The secular utopianists tended not to last.  The Fourierists fell apart.  The Noyes communities collapsed.  The Oneida community eventually became a silverplate company.  But the religious utopianists persevered.  Thus the Mormons and, after some theological rethinking when the world abjectly failed to end on schedule, the Seventh Day Adventists.

There were people who sought to challenge the system – to change it in some deep and fundamental way.  These were the most influential and controversial of the reformers.  Here you find temperance advocates calling for first a reduction in Americans’ consumption of alcohol and then its total elimination.  They succeeded – the average American consumed 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year in 1830 (roughly 1400 12-oz beers per person per year by today’s brewing standards), but by 1850 that was down to 2 gallons.  In 2010 it was still 2.2 gallons.  Here you also find the abolitionists, whose crusades will ultimately lead to Civil War.  And here also you find First Wave Feminism – the strivings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, the Grimke sisters, and the Seneca Falls Declaration.  These women were disillusioned with the limited role they were given by male abolitionists and struck out on their own, a pattern that would be repeated in the Civil Rights Movements and subsequent Feminist Movements of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

And finally there were the people who sought to correct the system – to leave the basic structure unchanged but fix one particular aspect of it that bothered them.  These were by far the most common, as their goals were the most limited and thus required the least effort and sacrifice, but they did have a number of lasting impacts.  This is where you get the public schools that we know today, as Horace Mann and others figured out that an educated workforce was an investment rather than an expense (something we have forgotten today).  You got reforms in the criminal justice system.  And you got a whole lot of other things as well.

Thus bringing us to Rev. Graham.

In 1834, with all of the problems facing the United States at that particular point in its history, Sylvester Graham decided that the most serious crisis, the problem most deserving of his time and energy to resolve, was what he considered to be a worrisome epidemic of masturbation across this great republic of ours.

How he came to this conclusion is not well understood, and that is probably for the best.

Nevertheless, it was in his view a problem, and in proper Moral Reform Movement fashion he decided that the root cause of all this masturbation was not any inherent biological sexual instinct but was instead due to environmental factors – specifically poor diet. 

His reasoning went like this:

People, he said, were eating impure foods.  Remember – this is at a time when people are moving off the farms and into the new cities for really the first time in American history, and they are now further from their food sources than ever before.  They were working in factories, bringing lunches and dinners with them instead of eating at home.  This sort of thing caused a lot of anxiety, and not just in the good reverend.

This caused them to think impure thoughts.  You are what you eat, after all.

And this naturally led them to take impure actions, shall we say.


Now, whatever you think of the scientific merits of this theory, it does have the signal advantage that once you frame the problem in this manner the solution becomes fairly obvious.

So he invented a special kind of flour, which he would bake into crackers.  The deal was that you would eat these crackers – which were a pure food, after all – and then you would think pure thoughts and not need to be masturbating all the time.  Your hands would thus be freed for more productive labor in the industrializing economy, as it were.

We still eat Graham crackers today.

Whether they have the therapeutic effect that Sylvester Graham believed they would have is something of an open question, however.  To my knowledge there have been no studies done on the issue – and good luck getting funding for that, really.

I will note that the invention of corn flakes sixty years later to solve the exact same problem using the exact same mechanism does suggest that perhaps the crackers were not as effective as Rev. Graham hoped they would be.

Stories like this are why I love history.  Human beings are just the most ridiculous things on the planet, and as a historian I get to study whatever I want about them, so long as it happened in the past.  You can’t beat that.

Have a s’more!


LucyInDisguise said...

Thank you. I so enjoy the manner in which you bring the tales of history to life. The back-stories are so much more interesting than the all-too-often dry facts delivered in traditional texts.

'Couple of things ...

"… Most times are, really, but what made this period special was the fact that the anxiety was focused on the rapid and permanent changes in everyday life that were going on at the time.  It’s one thing when governments are rising and falling, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing when your daily routine gets transformed.."

I read this paragraph about 6 dozen times. I understand what you are saying, and I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly. My questions then become:

"If we ignore the dates, could this possibly be an explanation for the current state of our society (specifically the behavior of the extreme right of the GOP)?

"Are we, in point of fact, witnessing the same type of resistance by society to adapt to the admittedly rapid changes brought forth in the last few decades?

"Will future historians look back at the last 50 or so years and paint our time with not only the same brush, but the same nuances in colors and landscape?"

Some part of me shudders at the thought. I'm certain that these types of things have happened in the past (case-in-point above!) and we humans have managed to survive, adapt, and move on. Yet I still feel this overwhelming desire to apologize to my grandchildren for the state of the world which we bequeath them. (An awful lot of that urge has to do with the environment, but still ...)

All in all, perhaps - just perhaps - the light at the end of this particular tunnel is not a freight train - but instead just a slightly sub-sonic bullet train carrying a more adaptive form of ourselves …

We can only hope.

- No, strike that! We can only act with best intent ...


Tom said...

S'mores. You brought them up yourself. You had to know someone would draw the obvious conclusion.

With the addition of chocolate and smush-mellos, were they an attempt to reintroduce sin back into the sinless graham cracker? I mean, "sinfully delicious!" Sounds right to me.


David said...

Thanks, Lucy – I appreciate the kind words.

I think you could make a case for the idea that the current state of our national culture and politics has a lot to do with the fact that so many people feel that their everyday lives are changing faster and more radically than they would like them to do.

The Long Revolutions pretty much have most of the major long-lasting effects they’re going to have by the late 19th century. Things change after that, of course, but the basic outlines of urban industrial society are largely set by then. And the change is pretty incremental in daily life for most of the next seven or eight decades.

But you do start to see serious shifts in daily life again toward the end of the 20th century, right about the time that the Culture War bursts into the open.

I think you do get a lot of the energy behind the radical right-wing extremism that has taken over the Republican Party from this anxiety-producing change, just as you got a lot of the energy for the Moral Reform Movements from people who saw their world careening out of control and wanted to seize some of it and make it stop moving or return it to some sort of mythical golden age.

I think you also get some of the energy behind the more progressive elements of American society now from this same change, though. Just as with the Moral Reform Movements, while many Americans were fearful of the changes in everyday life and sought to arrest them, others were accepting and found inspiration for further change and progress in them. If some things can be changed – for the better, if you’re willing to roll with them – then why not all things?

The Moral Reform Movements and our modern Culture War are similarly split that way.

So yes, you are seeing a lot of resistance to modernity and change in the right-wing cult that the GOP has become. You are also seeing the acceptance and celebration of that change in the more progressive elements of American society. And historians will report this with all the same nuance that they do the Moral Reform Movements of the 1830s, if they are any good at their jobs. Just because most Americans have no sense of history does not mean that historians aren’t trying. ;)

We act as best we can, and we move forward.


Tom – I will confess that is an angle I hadn’t considered. :)

Tom said...

That's OK, David. Being a dad it might be better for you not to consider that angle. Besides, you have me to do it (consider strange angles of things possibly best left unconsidered) for you. I'm happy to help.