The Odd Reason Graham Crackers Were Invented

A seemingly innocuous and wonderfully delicious snack, easy dessert, or crust ingredient, graham crackers are an economical option that can be used in a myriad of ways. Whether incorporated into a cheesecake, used to make s'mores, or eaten on their own, the brittle, sweet crunch and familiar, comforting flavor has a nostalgic appeal for many people. Whether you are purchasing the original variation, trying a flavored variety like cinnamon, or making your own homemade graham cracker recipe, the snack is a reliable standby. Their origins, however, are a bit more complex.

Graham crackers are traditionally made with graham flour, which Kitchn notes is responsible for the taste and texture of the classic food item.  Graham flour isn't readily available in most grocery stores, so many graham cracker iterations contain a mix of all-purpose or whole wheat flour with sweeteners, salt, vanilla extract, and other common baking ingredients. It's super simple to pick up a box at the store, but they're also not too tricky to make at home.

What was the intent of the original Graham cracker?

You may be wondering, what exactly are the peculiar origins of the beloved cracker? To put it plainly, BuzzFeed reports that the snack was invented to discourage sexual activity. Connecticut Reverend Sylvester Graham is reported to have been a proponent of the idea that eating flavorless food would discourage sexual inclinations back in the early 1800s. A piece on this here website reports that Graham was born in 1794 and was especially dedicated to a very healthy diet. Eat This Not That! reports that Graham praised a vegetarian diet high in fiber without dairy.

As The Atlantic notes, many other reformers were focused on other social issues such as women's rights, the effects of alcohol on society, and the abolition of slavery but Graham was concerned with the sexual mores of the day. At the time, many adhered to a school of thought that hailed that excess caused many of the ills of society — primarily with regard to sex, food, and money. 

Graham crackers' changing ingredients

Originally, Sylvester Graham's invention was supposed to be a healthful alternative to the so-called evils of white flour called Graham bread, per The Atlantic. It was also made without sugar and contained the sparse ingredients of coarsely ground germ, wheat bran, and wheat flour (via The New York Post). The first batch of graham crackers was made in Bound Brook, NJ in 1829 with the hopes that they would effectively dispel sexual inclinations and mitigate their nefarious ills from permeating society at large. The original cracker was rather dry and plain, more neutral than sweet or savory, which made them a staple of Graham's bland diet. Of course, graham crackers in today's day and age are made with honey, sugar, or other sweeteners, but that certainly flies in the face of Graham's original intent for the cracker.

In his "Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making," Graham stated, "Thousands in civil life will, for years, and perhaps as long as they live, eat the most miserable trash that can be imagined, in the form of bread." In addition to assuming that white flour or bread made people miserable or gluttonous, he believed his "Graham Diet" could actually stop people from feeling sexual urges, according to Eat This Not That

The bridge between the original graham cracker and today's snack

While Sylvester Graham's outlook on food was actually quite advanced, his extremist views on sex became more and more untethered from a more progressive society. He even became the target of some critics who took ire at the fact that he would talk about sex in the company of women, which was seen as inappropriate at the time, according to The New York Post

The use of graham crackers started to change over time. Boy Scouts combined them with chocolate and marshmallow to invent s'mores around 1925(via The New York Post). Once Nabisco (which was then called the National Biscuit Company, according to The Atlantic) added sweeteners in 1931 the fate of the snack changed and the rest is history. Eventually, it became the ingredient we now know and love in everything from s'mores to cheesecake and graham cracker pie crust recipes. Of course, Graham may be incensed if he saw the concoctions that people were including his namesake crackers in nowadays, but we are indebted to him for the beloved treat he helped to promulgate.