The Bumpy Story of the Phrenological Fowlers

Written by Cory Austin Knudson

Evidently, I am an open and amative person, quick to laugh and always ready to be the center of attention. Though I have a tendency toward pinching pennies, I will always go out of my way to help a friend. I would make for a good salesman or restaurateur; I would struggle in professions that require much solitude.

At least, that’s what my phrenological chart says, which I put together at my desk in the Kislak Special Collections Processing Center with the help of my handy Fowler and Wells Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1850; Box 1 Folder 4, Fowler and Wells phrenological character readings, ephemera, and printed material, 1840-1910, Ms. Coll. 1418 Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.)

Ms. Coll. 1418 may be the reason my coworkers think I’ve had a nasty headache for a few days, since I’ve been caught more than once at my desk assiduously rubbing my head according to the directions of Illustrated Self-Instructor authors Orson Squire Fowler and Lorenzo Niles Fowler, trying to figure out what they might have said about the relative strength of my various mental faculties. The “Phrenological Fowlers” were, as I learned in the process of cataloguing this collection, the ones largely responsible for the wild popularity of phrenology in the United States in the nineteenth century.

Before getting to the Fowlers, though, what is phrenology? In broad terms, phrenology was a pseudoscience that suggested that various characteristics of the mind called “faculties” or “organs” influenced the physical development and specifically the size of various portions of the brain, which in turn influenced the formation of the contours and indentations of the skull. By examining the bumps on a person’s head, phrenologists suggested, you could gain an understanding of the psychological character of that person. Some phrenologists even claimed to be able to predict what profession would best suit a person based on the landscape of their cranium.

Originally developed in the early 1800s by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), phrenology was named and propagated largely in Britain during the 1810s by Gall’s erstwhile student Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832). Spurzheim attempted to import the practice to the US in 1832 but died in the course of his American lecture tour. That poor omen notwithstanding, American academicians and intellectual elites began to take to phrenology, which presented the possibility of uniting the study of all mental processes and phenomena in one unified science. But it was not until 1835 when the Phrenological Fowlers, together with their wives, sister, and brother-in-law, opened the Fowler & Wells business and publishing house in New York City did phrenology really become the force that it did in American thought and culture over the course of the nineteenth century.

Fowler & Wells published voluminously on phrenology, conducted phrenological analyses, and sold those famous porcelain busts depicting phrenological characteristics that have become emblematic of the pseudoscience out of their Nassau Street office. Crucially, they also brought the practice of phrenology to the people, holding lectures characterized by massive crowds and audience participation. Fowler & Wells-certified analysts would go into the audience at these events and provide on-the-spot examinations, giving their subjects Self-Instructor pamphlets that contained their skull-analysis charts as well as accessible information on the practice. One such chart for “Pearly Heinz” can be seen below. Fueled by these pamphlets, phrenology (not to mention Fowler & Wells) became a household brand in the mid-nineteenth century.

The “Professors” Fowler themselves also became famous for their efforts. The New York Times declared in his September 4, 1896 obituary that Orson Squire Fowler had “examined the heads of many distinguished men, among them Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, William Cullen Bryant, Baron Rothschild, Li Hung Chang, and Sir Henry Irving.” Though no such figures of interest feature prominently in Ms. Coll. 1418, there are a number of handwritten phrenological analyses by Orson Squire Fowler and his brother, as seen here:

Phrenology eventually (and rightfully) fell out of favor toward the end of the nineteenth century, and Fowler & Wells finally shuttered in the 1910s. Now recognized as a pseudoscience often explicitly mobilized to substantiate racist ideas, the best that phrenology can lay claim to is igniting a popular interest in the relationships between the structure of the brain and behavior. Not quite incidentally, as might be guessed, very little of what I learned from rubbing the bumps and indentations of my scalp at my desk is actually true. While I like a laugh, and have been told I’m a good friend in a pinch, I know few people who would call me “open and amative,” and being the center of attention makes me physically ill more often than not. I prefer my little space in the Kislak processing center.

One response to “The Bumpy Story of the Phrenological Fowlers”

  1. Just saw this used on Mercy Street last night! (PBS on Amazon prime). It’s in season two, episode 1 or 2. Takes place during the civil war. The Union Army takes over a Confederate aristocrats home and turns it into a hospital. Love the medical shows and the beautiful clothing.

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