How graham crackers shaped Wesleyan student culture: 1839-2010

Though Wesleyan has outgrown many of its former “hippy” associations such as being the token “naked” campus, the school still definitely maintains an earthy and involved atmosphere that manifests itself everywhere from its activist groups to the vegan food scene. Outsiders and Wesleyan students alike often see the school’s personality as a remnant of the turbulent 1960s, but you might be surprised to know that this culture had its first awakening in one particular student group…170 years ago.

This week I finished processing the records of Wesleyan’s Physiological Society, and have quite a story to tell. The Physiological Society, founded in 1839 and sporadically active until 1844, was a direct response to “Grahamism,” a movement concentrating on regulating diet and lifestyle to temper impulsiveness, mental health, and sexuality. Grahamites practiced a strict vegetarian diet, also cutting out sugar, white bread, and most importantly, alcohol. Though Grahamism might not strike an immediate cord of recognition for you, I’m sure that you’ve been acquainted with one of its most famous dietary coups: the Graham Cracker.

It was very interesting for me to compare the beliefs and practices of this early vegan/diet and lifestyle-focused group to Wesleyan’s current legacy. Though the Physiological Society was “progressive” in that it seriously considered the risks of meat, alcohol, and tobacco consumption– things that we are now warned about daily– the group’s scientific understanding of the body and its general philosophies were definitely a bit off base. The historical context of Grahamism is key; it gained popularity at a time when the great 19th century reform movement was just gaining steam, as well as when the early Victorian ideals of repressing sexuality and social deviance were taking root. These young Wesleyan students created the Physiological Society to rout impulses which they considered unhealthy and even shameful (such as sexual urges). In this way, their “healthy” practices differed greatly from those of current Wesleyan students, who generally advocate for the openness of both the body and the mind.

Comparing these two faces of the University 170 years apart was eye-opening about Wesleyan’s history, as well as the evolution of youth culture in general. We may all be products of our times, but take a look at this collection and maybe you’ll see that Wesleyan is too!

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