Illustration by Branche Coverdale
On December 27, 1907, Clara Webster hosted a dinner at her modest home on Highland Avenue in Dixon, Illinois. The 18-year-old was known throughout the town for her elaborate theme parties, but on that particular night, Webster would throw one of her oddest events yet: a munching party.
At the time, meticulous mastication was in vogue. On both sides of the Atlantic, fashionable crowds flocked to munching parties, where each mouthful of food was timed with a stopwatch to ensure proper digestion. After five minutes elapsed, the official chewing conductor rang a bell or gong, signaling that it was time to swallow.
These mastication marathons were often muted affairs.
“Munching parties,” observed the Detroit Free Press, “are much less vivacious than they were when eating and drinking went on rapidly.”
Guests sat elbow-to-elbow in concentrated silence, their heads bowed low over their plates, allowing their tongues to rest against the roof of their mouths — a position believed to best prepare the rest of the body for digestion.
The physical contortions, alongside the spit-filled chorus of smacking and swallowing, disgusted many observers. The chewing craze “added a new horror to dining out,” Frank Crowinshield, a society writer, complained. “These strange creatures seldom repay attention. The best that can be expected from them is the tense and awful silence that always accompanies their excruciating tortures of mastication.”
Nevertheless, between 1903 and 1910, social chewing events proliferated across the United States and Europe. In addition to dinner parties — or noontime “muncheons” — friends and colleagues organized local chewing clubs, which were “neighborhood societies chiefly, like the literary clubs around Boston,” according to The Boston Globe.
In 1909, George Cox formed a daily “chew club” for the baseball fans that frequented his cigar store in Hartford, Connecticut. During the off-season, a group of men gathered in the smoke-filled shop to puff on pipes and trade diet tips.
“One after another, these fans report day after day what they eat, how they chewed it, and the length of time it took” reported the Hartford Courant.
The mania for mastication was sparked by Horace Fletcher, a prominent American food faddist, whose career highlights the perennial public appetite for quick fixes and bizarre biohacks. Like most of our modern wellness gurus, Fletcher was more of a mountebank than a medical man, but nevertheless, his chewing crusade catalyzed a revolution in nutritional science and theory.
Fletcher believed that all illness stemmed from eating too quickly, which caused undigested food to build up in the gut and tax the system. Thus, he advised masticating each mouthful of food until it liquidized and lost all taste — a task that required an average of 100 chews a minute. In addition, all beverages should be treated like fine wine, swished around the mouth for 30 seconds before swallowing.
“To swallow anything but pure water without tasting it into absorption produces a shock,” Fletcher warned.
According to Fletcher, who was nicknamed “the Great Masticator,” “the most important part of nutrition is the right preparation of food in the mouth for further digestion.” Careful chewing freed the stomach and intestines from overexertion and increased the efficiency of nutrient extraction, which helped conserve energy, reduce food intake, and ward off a slew of physiological and psychological diseases — or, as he liked to say, “nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.”
Born on August 10, 1849, Horace Fletcher was a restlessly curious child. He wandered at a whim, often disappearing for hours at a time. “Just as soon as your tiny feet could toddle you did your utmost to investigate as far as possible your new surroundings,” a family friend recalled in a letter, “the whole household were often kept in a great state of anxiety while search was made for the missing boy.”
The monotony of daily life in Lawrence, Massachusetts, grew increasingly unbearable. At the age of 15, Fletcher escaped aboard a Pacific-bound whaling ship. The catching and processing of a single whale took multiple days of continuous, back-breaking labor. The massive carcass — weighing up to 200 tons — was broken down and boiled on the blood-and-blubber-slicked deck, coating the air with the suffocating stench of burning flesh. Still, it was a window to the rest of the world.
After a decade of port-hopping in the Pacific, Fletcher landed in San Francisco, where he made a small fortune manufacturing ink and importing Japanese art. There, he met and married Grace Marsh, a talented impressionist painter, “who was for years considered the most beautiful woman in San Francisco,” according to the San Francisco Examiner.
Fletcher channeled his inexhaustible energy into a patchwork of intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits. He was a voracious reader and writer, who owned thousands of rare books and published tomes on mining, marksmanship and everything in between. In addition, he was an avid art collector, an internationally acclaimed sharpshooter and a celebrated gymnast.
But Fletcher couldn’t stay still. In 1889, he and his wife moved to Paris, where Fletcher worked as an art correspondent for the New York Herald. A year later, the couple relocated to New Orleans, where Fletcher managed an opera company. By 1898, Fletcher had circled the globe four times, crossed the United States 36 times, and held 38 different occupations, and the years of gourmandizing and globetrotting were taking their toll.
Photo by Paul Fornier, via Library of Congress
By the age of 44, Fletcher was overweight and plagued by a constellation of chronic ailments. Debilitating fatigue clouded his mind and curtailed his travels, making him feel like “a thing fit but to be thrown upon the scrap-heap.” The once-nimble gymnast, who had performed backflips and somersaults with graceful ease, now struggled to catch a slow-moving omnibus, his heart pounding in violent protest to the slightest physical exertion.
The deterioration was devastating. He remained as restless as ever, but he was unable to indulge his peripatetic impulses. He slipped into a deep depression, convinced that the best years were behind him. “I used to go to sleep, so hopeless that I wished I might never wake up,” he said.
Due to the magnitude of his maladies, Fletcher was denied life insurance around 1895. The rejection was a wake-up call — diet or die — and it sparked his transformation from bon vivant to nutrition nut. For years, Fletcher struggled to find a cure for his corpulence. He bounced from doctor to doctor, consulted hundreds of health books, and swallowed an ever-growing cocktail of powders, cathartics and stimulants. But still, his battle raged on.
In June 1898, Fletcher went to Chicago for business. The work dragged on for weeks, forcing the restless roamer to remain longer than expected in a city where all of his friends had left for the summer. For the first time in years, Fletcher found himself alone, anchored and terribly agitated. To pass the time, he began lingering over his meals in the hotel dining room, chewing his food slowly and attentively. As he savored each mouthful, familiar foods began to unveil new dimensions of flavor.
“A potato is a luxury when dealt with on my principle of a long, long chew,” he wrote. “The starch contained in the vegetable, being well mixed with the juices of the mouth, becomes … a dainty for the gods.”
Previously, Fletcher had “never been satisfied with anything less than the crème de la crème of everything,” according to The Independent. A typical meal consisted of a prodigious portion of meat washed down with a bottle or two of champagne. But now, the notorious epicurean found himself craving simpler fare and satiated by smaller portions.
Intrigued, Fletcher redoubled his efforts. He weighed out his food and scrutinized each bite, tracking the transformation of taste, texture and temperature over time. He prolonged swallowing for as long as possible, masticating each mouthful into a thick, flavorless slurry. To his surprise, the liquid trickled down his throat involuntarily, leading Fletcher to conclude that humans had a hidden food filter in the back of their throat that triggered an automatic swallowing reflex once food was properly prepared for digestion.
Unlike the unnatural act of forced swallowing, he decided, the filter prevented undigestible and innutritious material from entering and poisoning the body. This revelation became the rationale behind his method of eating, inspiring the battle cry: “Chew until your food swallows itself!”
After five months of meticulous munching, Fletcher lost 42 pounds and whittled his waistline down by seven inches. His aches and ailments disappeared along the way, and were replaced by a level of energy and enthusiasm he hadn’t experienced in 20 years. From then on, Fletcher devoted the majority of his time and resources to spreading his gustatory gospel.
Photo from the book Fletcherism; What it is, or How I Became Young at Sixty by Horace Fletcher, via Project Gutenberg
While the details of Fletcher’s health journey are unique — no other diet reformer can claim to have taught the Japanese minister of war how to shoot teacups out of the air — his arc from illness to recovery follows the standard script of nearly all food faddists, who derive their authority from tales of personal transformation and the promise of panaceas.
On a brisk day in December 1898, Fletcher arrived in Middletown, Connecticut. He met with Wilbur O. Atwater, a chemistry professor at Wesleyan University who pioneered the American field of nutritional science. Fletcher was convinced that chewing was a cure-all, but that he lacked the scientific training to be taken seriously. An endorsement from Atwater, one of the most respected scientists in the world, would boost the credibility of his homespun theories.
Atwater listened to Fletcher’s account, but politely dismissed it. “When I told him my story he threw cold water on my enthusiasm,” Fletcher wrote. He was devastated but determined, and fired off a flurry of follow-up letters restating his case. At first, Atwater’s replies were “cordial but in no way encouraging,” but over time “the frost became more and more repellent and benumbing.” Even worse, he was mocked by friends and humorists alike, who called him a crank and “the chew-chew man.” His own brother publicly condemned his “vagaries.”
Nevertheless, Fletcher continued to follow his gut. He diligently studied the time and effort it took various foods to liquidize, creating hundreds of menu cards with the number of chews required to fully digest each item: a piece of toast, 20 bites; a shallot, 722; a bowl of macerated wheat, 800. On average, Fletcher performed 2,500 mastications over the course of a 30-minute meal.
He also became interested in the effects of particular foods on his mental and physical state. Fletcher restricted himself to one food item for weeks at a time, including a 300-day stretch devoted exclusively to potatoes. In February 1901, Fletcher spent two weeks on “nothing but milk, always from the same cow, and fresh from milking.” He reported feeling satiated on two quarts a day, each of which took 12 minutes to consume properly.
Fletcher’s fervor for feces — which he colorfully referred to as “economic ash” and the “dandruff of the alimentary canal” — bordered on coprophilia. Ideal samples were saved, some of which, he wrote, “kept for more than five years, remain inoffensive, dry up, [and] gradually disintegrate.” Others were sent by first-class mail to federal laboratories as proof that proper digestion produced small, salubrious stools “with no more odor than a hot biscuit.”
By 1900, Fletcher needed a change of pace, a respite from the constant rejection and ridicule. He retreated to a sumptuous 13th-century mansion on the Grand Canal in Venice, which he christened the Palazzo Saibante, meaning “Palace of Health.” There, he met Dr. Ernest Van Someren, a young English physician who agreed to test Fletcher’s system on himself and others. After a few months of munching, the doctor was hooked.
In August 1901, Van Someren presented a paper to the British Medical Association supporting Fletcher’s claim that prolonged mastication decreased food consumption and improved overall health. The theory baffled and intrigued scientists from around the world, who knew little about the body’s response to caloric restriction. Seemingly overnight, Fletcherism had transformed from a hoax to a hypothesis.
Fletcher used his wealth and well-oiled charm to fan the budding interest in his nutrition theory, offering to bankroll individual studies and supportive institutions. His checkbook conjured a chorus of cautious praise from scientists and physicians. Fletcher advertised his connection to the scientific community in his writing and interviews with the press, encouraging the conflation of their legitimacy with his own.
Prominent physiologists, lured by the promise of research funds, flooded Fletcher with invitations for meetings and follow-up studies. One such request came from Russell H. Chittenden, a renowned biochemist and the director of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, who was interested in studying the minimum amount of food humans required to maintain their well-being.
In 1902, the Great Masticator arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, his suitcase stuffed with hundreds of menu cards, detailed food diaries, and his signature fecal samples. Chittenden dismissed the bulk of Fletcher’s theory — believing that any benefits stemmed from a decrease in food intake rather than “some hypothetical deglutition center” — but was nevertheless charmed by his sophomoric zeal, describing Fletcher as “full of vitality and hyper enthusiastic over his newly acquired physical well-being.”
By all accounts, Fletcher was affable and avuncular — a far cry from the stereotypical “lean ascetic sitting over a plate of prunes,” according to a writer for The Independent. Despite his monomania, Fletcher was depicted as “a delightful man” with “the sweetest and cheeriest disposition imaginable.” People were also drawn to Fletcher’s jocular appearance; he was described by the same writer as “a chubby little man, with … a cherubic smile and a pair of twinkling blue eyes framed in a pair of big round spectacles, looking … like a sort of spiritualized Santa Claus without the whiskers.”
Over several weeks, Chittenden monitored Fletcher’s food intake, which averaged 1,600 calories and 45 grams of protein a day — significantly less than the nutrition standards set by Atwater. Despite his meager rations, Fletcher maintained his weight, displayed no ill effects, and breezed through four back-to-back days of strength and endurance exercises — a stunning feat given his age, low caloric intake and sedentary lifestyle.
Intrigued by Fletcher’s physical prowess, Chittenden launched a comprehensive study to determine the accuracy of accepted dietary standards. The experiment demonstrated that humans could consume 2,500 calories and 50 grams of protein a day — two-thirds of the calories and one-half of the protein recommended at the time — without experiencing negative side effects.
These findings defied the long-held maxim that a high-protein diet was necessary for physical and mental vigor. This belief was so entrenched in popular and scientific thought that “the words nutritious and nitrogenous are almost synonymous,” observed a writer for Nature in 1906. Athletes were advised to consume three portions of rare red meat per day, and in 1896 the University of California served its football players each more than 200 grams of animal protein a day, the equivalent of around two pounds of steak or 33 eggs.
The Yale investigation sparked a lively debate over optimum levels of protein in the diet, which culminated in a dramatic revision of nutritional standards and catapulted Fletcher into the limelight. Confusing charisma for credibility, journalists mistakenly described him as a professor, physiologist, doctor, biologist and dietitian. Through this game of telephone, the Great Masticator shed his layman status and evolved into a respected diet guru.
Fletcher encouraged this view by presenting himself as a man of science, a co-investigator rather than a mere test subject. In lieu of white-coat credentials, the flamboyant faddist sported white tailored suits and made-up monikers such as “science freelance” and “scientific epicure.” He spun facts into fairytales, stretching the truth to give his doctrine a veneer of validity. Fletcher wildly exaggerated his research experience, claiming to have spent decades “in unremitting study … with the heads of many of the great physiological laboratories of the world assisting him with their best facilities and information.”
Buttressed by a sheen of scientific authority, Fletcher’s ideas became easier for the public to swallow. His ideas were popularized by the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Scientific America, Ladies’ Home Journal and even The Lancet. Compulsive chewing became fashionable, attracting a hoard of high-profile hypochondriacs, including John D. Rockefeller, Irving Fisher and King Edward VII.
Mastication mania swept through the lettered class, prompting The Antlers Democrat to note: “Within literary circles, especially, the chewing cult is practiced to the lengthening of the dinner hour and the shortening of the dinner table.” Upton Sinclair declared Fletcherism to be “one of the great discoveries of my life,” while Henry James hosted the Great Masticator at his home and distributed copies of his books to his neighbors. Franz Kafka’s father hid behind a newspaper at meals to avoid his son’s neurotic nibbling.
Even Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the most famous health reformer of the time, converted to the cause and began prescribing his patients chewing rituals alongside their yogurt enemas. Before all meals at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a quartette led diners in a “chewing song.” For the musically disinclined, the word “Fletcherize” was prominently painted at the head of the dining room.
Fletcher became an influential voice on health issues, authoring several best-selling books and an avalanche of magazine articles. In addition, he produced pamphlets on his doctrine for the Harvard Dental School and the U.S. Army. Fletcher was in great demand on the lecture circuit, sharing the same stage as the likes of Henry Ford and Theodore Roosevelt. According to the American Journal of Public Health, Fletcher was “lecturer of singular charm [and] the members of his audiences invariably became enthusiastic disciples.”
A barnstormer with the zeal of an aspiring politician, Fletcher made headlines and packed auditoriums wherever he went, regularly attracting crowds of a thousand or more. He had a commanding stage presence, holding his audience in rapt attention with lurid, intimate details about his travels and health journey.
“Our people like to gossip. They will go a long way to hear a public speaker … gossip about his liver and lights,” reported The Knoxville Sentinel. “When Horace Fletcher got to talking about himself you could almost see his intestines squirming.”
“It’s all in the mouth,” he yelled, before doing a backflip off the high diving board.
Fletcher’s energetic showmanship spawned a massive chewing craze. Workers organized Fletcher Clubs at work to encourage “industrious munching” at lunchtime. Kindergarteners in Buffalo, New York, practiced Fletcherism in a daily “communion service,” in which each child dedicated 20 minutes to the consumption of a single cracker. Child’s Restaurant, the largest chain in America at the time, distributed pamphlets instructing diners to “eat slowly and masticate thoroughly.”
His ideas also piqued the interest of government agencies and charity organizations tasked with feeding large groups of people. Unemployed men in London, prisoners at Sing Sing, and cadets at West Point were all urged to eat less and Fletcherize. The U.S. Army even tested Fletcher’s program to see if it would be possible to reduce rations without impacting physical performance.
Still, life at his sumptuous 13th-century Venetian palazzo was far from perfect. Grace, long bitter over his prolonged absences and rumored affairs, refused to speak with him. Proselytizing was pricey, and the retired businessman was struggling to stay afloat. He claimed to have hemorrhaged $100,000 — the equivalent of nearly $3 million today — underwriting experiments, publishing propaganda and commuting across the Atlantic.
By the end of the decade, Fletcher was flirting with bankruptcy, estranged from his wife, and all but alienated from the scientific community, who had lost interest in his claims. In a desperate attempt to balance his bank account, Fletcher moved to Copenhagen in 1911 and cut back his public appearances. “I have been lying low … recovering from the debauch of expense which my propaganda imposed on me while active at it,” wrote Fletcher.
With the charming charlatan out of the limelight, interest in Fletcherism rapidly disappeared. “I have succeeded in having postponed or cancelled scattered lecture calls … [ and] the sales of my books have fallen off a half, as might be expected,” he complained. The decline reflected the fickleness of fads and the difficulty of adhering to Fletcher’s program.
The situation only continued to deteriorate. Fletcher’s fanaticism had grown alongside his fame, which unnerved many of his allies in academia. He made increasingly outlandish claims, including that “crime would practically be eliminated” if everyone just chewed properly, according to The Reidsville Review. Disturbed by Fletcher’s ballooning bombast, scientists distanced themselves from the chewing creed.
“In no walk of life, even in cruelly-competitive business, have I seen such crass ignorance, narrow scope vision, and jealousy as in physiological circles. That they are jealous of me is to be expected,” wrote Fletcher.
Even Kellogg grew weary of the chewing crusade and abruptly cut off all ties. Fletcher was confused by the sudden silence: “I have received no word from you … and [you have] continued the silence by suppressing any mention of my name in any of your publications, which was significant of some serious disapproval or distrust,” Fletcher wrote to Kellogg in 1914. “You took down your big sign, ‘Fletcherize,’ and slowed-up in preaching head-digestion as the key to the prevention of malnutrition.”
Haunted by his increasing irrelevancy, Fletcher spent the last years of his life lashing out at his critics and attempting to regain the public’s favor. But by his death in 1919, his theories had lost their bite. While Fletcher’s celebrity faded over time, his spirit lives on in the lingering belief in the curative properties of slow, mindful eating.
Jessica Gingrich is a freelance writer and researcher focused on the intersection of food, gender, culture and history.