The Phrenologists

phreno cabinet

Fowler & Wells Phrenological Cabinet, New-York Illustrated News, 1860 (detail).

The Phrenologists: Participatory Knowledge in Antebellum America

“It is now my desire and determination, to afford every possible facility for the spread of Phrenology among all classes; and in my way, by cheap publications, private lectures, supplying societies with libraries and specimens, &c. &c…” So O.S. Fowler, America’s best-known phrenologist, described his mission in 1843.

For my dissertation, The Phrenologists: Participatory Knowledge in Antebellum America, I am researching the world of practical phrenologists and their audiences, with an emphasis on Fowlers & Wells, a major phrenological business firm. This project explores the relationship between science, commerce, and popular culture, using phrenology to recover a democratized mode of scientific exchange that became increasingly stigmatized over the course of the nineteenth century. Despite the attempts of anatomists and other critics to debunk phrenology – which became an iconic example of “pseudo-science” – it had a long-lived and major influence on American culture, in large part due to its radically consumer-oriented nature.

Proponents of phrenology believed that the shape of a person’s skull revealed their inner character. Americans favored “practical” phrenology, which bypassed theoretical discussions of the mind to provide individuals with specific, useful information about themselves. Phrenologists examined their customers’ cranial morphology, then offered customers insights into their own characters, charting the strengths or weaknesses of propensities like “alimentiveness” (appetite and digestion), “philoprogenitiveness” (love of family), and “constructiveness” (mechanical ingenuity). Phrenological character was mutable. By exercising specific organs of the brain, a person could develop desirable propensities. A customer might follow an oft-repeated phrenological motto — “Know Thyself” — or practice judging other peoples’ characters.

As genteel doctors and scientists began the attempt to professionalize their fields, phrenologists developed an alternate model for scientific work – a public-facing trade in ideas which I call “participatory knowledge.” Itinerant lecturers cultivated a conversational tone and invited audience participation. Publishers heralded the cheapness and simplicity of their books and pamphlets, boasting of their accessibility to “the million.” Cranial examiners offered customers practical advice regarding work, marriage, and health. The meaning of the science shifted in relation to its audience, as phrenologists constantly adapted their message to appeal to a wide range of people. Rather than limit their field to a professional elite, practical phrenologists encouraged customers to become phrenologists themselves. They made money by selling their science to as many people as possible, rendering the boundaries between consumer and producer porous.

By examining how and why phrenology spread from about 1830 to 1860, I illustrate a material process of self-making in the era of the idealized “self-made man.” Concentrated in the northeast, phrenologists helped people navigate a social (and often personal) rupture: the transition from agrarian culture to urbanized market society. They readied the psyche of the emerging middle class for the industrial age, reorganizing mental labor from a whole self to specialized organs, promoting introspection as a way to orient oneself to the market. Fowlers & Wells packaged their ideas as paper and plaster goods, commodities to be bought and sold. Practical phrenology demonstrates the production of market-oriented selfhood in the United States – and its export to destinations throughout the world.

The cultural foment of the early-to-mid nineteenth century is in some ways analogous to our present digital age, as industrial print culture exploded, knowledge became more accessible, citizens questioned old hierarchies of expertise, and new forms of self-fashioning became available. Within this context, phrenologists emerged to sell an entertaining and accessible form of mental philosophy that elevated the individual – or at least, appeared to – amid the disjunctures of market capitalism.

The saints and sages in history — but you yourself?
Sermons, creeds, theology — but the human brain,
and what is called reason? and what is called
love? and what is called life?

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855