On a March day in 1848, James Terry, grandson of famous clockmaker Eli Terry, stepped into Orson and Lorenzo Fowler’s New York City office to have his head examined. He walked away, $3 poorer, armed with a detailed analysis describing his character traits, both strengths and weaknesses. As tempting as it is to cherry-pick parts of Fowler’s analysis, such as “good perception of physical arrangement, are quite annoyed to see things in disorder,” and apply it to Terry’s profession of lock manufacturer and owner of Eagle Lock Company, we can’t assess either its accuracy or Terry’s opinion of the reading. However, his son James Jr., anthropologist, antiques dealer, and collector, saved it as a tangible link to his father.
Much more is known about Orson Fowler (1809–87), his younger brother Lorenzo Niles Orson (1811–96), and their phrenological empire. While not the originators of this pseudoscience, these two brothers and their family were largely responsible for phrenology’s popularity in America during the 19th century. Originating in Vienna at the end of the previous century, phrenology arrived in the States in the 1820s, taking several years to catch hold. Converted in the mid 1830s, the Fowlers traveled the lecture circuit entertaining and educating curious audiences with talks and readings. A reading consisted of first measuring the circumference and areas of a participant’s head, and then feeling for enlarged areas and indentations—not reading bumps as was and is commonly believed. Rather, the concept taught a classification schema for the brain, the organ of the mind, with each organ or area representing a different character trait with size of the organ indicating a trait’s power. Since the skull conformed itself to the brain, a hands-on reading was essential in noting areas that were large and well-developed or small and undercultivated. After a reading, a person, enlightened with self-awareness, could capitalize on strengths and work on weaknesses to attain perfection.
The Fowlers themselves reached perfection in their timing of riding the wave of this self-help movement and expanded beyond the lecture circuit by opening offices in Philadelphia (1838), New York City (1842), Boston (1851), and London (1863) to store their research collection of casts of heads and offer readings. While impossible to estimate how many heads they read during the span of their careers, their clients included such 19th-century notables as Walt Whitman, Allan Pinkerton, Lydia Maria Child, Clara Barton, John Brown, Margaret Fuller, Hiram Powers, and a skeptical Mark Twain, who submitted at least twice. By the time James Terry visited their New York office, it was a thriving business where, in addition to readings and gazing at casts, guests could take classes for 25 cents or private lessons for $1 and buy mementoes such as a bust for $1.25 for home study.
With business booming, more personnel were needed to satisfy demand for readings and manage more aspects of the growing empire. Fired up with phrenological zeal, younger sister Charlotte also gave readings, taught classes, and managed the New York office with husband Samuel R. Wells, who operated the publishing arm that cemented the Fowlers’ influence. The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, in circulation for more than 70 years, introduced phrenology into the homes of millions who could not visit the offices in person. As a premium, journal subscribers were offered plaster of paris busts, also marketed as “ornamental, deserving a place on the center-table or mantel, in parlor, office, or study,” to read their own skulls at home using an accompanying illustrated key. Besides issuing numerous phrenology tracts that the Fowlers wrote, Fowler & Wells also published titles on architecture, home economics, etiquette, and books on other major 19th-century reform and self-help movements, such as temperance, hydropathy, homeopathy, vegetarianism, anti-tobacco, and dress reform.
Phrenology introduced Lorenzo to his wife Lydia when reading her father Gideon Folger’s head during a business trip to Nantucket in 1844; a satisfactory reading of Lydia on a return visit resulted in an offer of marriage, which brought her into the fold. Their phrenologically blessed union prompted them to preach the importance of finding one’s mate in such books as Marriage: Its History and Ceremonies: with a phrenological and physiological exposition of the functions and qualifications for happy marriages. Lydia quickly became involved in the business with lectures and readings, and studied medicine, becoming the second woman to graduate from an American medical college and the country’s first female professor of medicine with a specialty in anatomy and midwifery. After successful lecture tours in England, Lorenzo and Lydia opened a London office in Fleet Street near Ludgate Circus in 1863. Despite their busy schedules, the couple raised three daughters, with the youngest, Jessie, carrying on the business into the 20th century.
Phrenology had many detractors in its day—some critiques leveled against the number of organs or traits increasing several times (from the original 27 to over 40) and its use by some in promulgating racism. Yet it did champion many positives: encouraging people to use readings to choose the right occupations and spouses, helping parents understand and direct their children on worthy paths, and rehabilitating instead of punishing criminals and the mentally ill. Falling out of favor towards the end of the century with the rise of new disciplines psychiatry and psychoanalysis, phrenology nevertheless influenced them with its belief that areas of the brain had certain meanings. While easy now to dismiss phrenology as quackery, it helps to take the measure of the reasons for its popularity and its historical context.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera