The Phrenology Archive

Traveling Phrenologist"Professor" Livingston was the American Museum’s phrenologist -- a vocation he adopted after a less successful run as an actor. For a nominal fee, he inspected museum visitors’ heads and provided analyses of their characters and talents. Phrenology was a popular nineteenth-century science of determining a person’s mental strengths, abilities, and personality traits from the shape of the skull. It was founded in Germany in the 1790s by Franz Joseph Gall and J. G. Spurzheim and gained popularity among upper-class intellectuals and scientists in Britain in the 1820s. As theories of phrenology spread to the U.S. in the 1830s, they merged with the reform-oriented and commercializing culture of Jacksonian America and moved from the realm of scholarly research into a more practical and popular science that focused on self-improvement. From the 1830s into the 1880s, thousands of traveling phrenologists toured the country "reading" character strengths and weaknesses and offering advice on how to overcome personal shortcomings. During the antebellum years geographic mobility, economic expansion, and the growth of cities undermined reliance on personal contacts and references among the middle class. Phrenology’s popularity - along with physiognomy, pathognomy, and other "sciences" based on reading innate character from bodily signs - spoke to the need and desire for practical ways to judge others in a society that was becoming more anonymous. Supporters of phrenology argued its value in selecting marriage partners, career choices, the hiring of employees, child rearing, as well as criminal detection and rehabilitation. Phrenology's main proponents in the U.S. were Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, who promoted phrenology as a self-improvement practice along with other popular forms of moral and health reform such as vegetarianism, temperance, mesmerism (contact with the spirit world), and hydropathy (water cures). Although phrenology appealed to advocates of biological determinism, nineteenth-century reformers also argued that people could overcome mental shortcomings through self-improvement techniques - in Orson Fowler’s phrase: "Self-Made or Never Made."

There are 10 matching records. Displaying matches 1 through 10 .


Advertisement for The Phrenological Cabinet, 1850
Orson and Lorenzo Fowler were the pre-eminent spokesmen for phrenology in the U.S. during the 1830s and 40s. They zealously promoted phrenology as a practical tool for self-improvement. This advertisement in the 1850 guide to Barnum's American Museum directs people to their nearby establishment, The Phrenological Cabinet, which combined a publishing house, mail-order business, and museum, the latter featuring human and animal skulls, and casts from the heads of "the most distinguished men that ever lived."
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Image.


The Traveling Phrenologist in the White Mountains
An illustration from an illustrated newsweekly shows how the nineteenth-century popular science of phrenology was disseminated across the United States. Itinerant phrenologists, joining other types of traveling salesmen and craftsmen, crisscrossed rural America selling their services and wares. "Yes, miss," the phrenologist is quoted in the picture's caption, "you've a very remarkable head, very!"
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Image.


Phrenology Made Easy, Knickerbocker Magazine, June 2, 1838.
Knickerbocker Magazine, an influential literary journal edited by Lewis Gaylord Clark, gave substantial coverage to the new science of phrenology in the 1830s and 40s. This article defends phrenology as a practical approach to understanding and reforming negative character traits and argues for its wide application to child-rearing, education, and marriage choices.
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


Preface to: Self-Culture and Perfection of Character Including the Management of Youth, by O.S. Fowler, 1847.
Orson Fowler, along with his brother Lorenzo, became the pre-eminent spokespersons for phrenology in the 1830s and 40s. They combined evangelical zeal, astute business practices, and great showmanship as they toured the country lecturing and giving demonstrations. In 1835, they set up their headquarters in New York City and established a publishing house, mail order business, and museum. They published several journals and numerous tracts on phrenology. This preface to their 1847 book Self-Culture and Perfection of Character presents their belief in the power of phrenology to promote self-improvement through self-knowledge.
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


Preface to: Familiar Lessons on Physiology Designed for the Use of Children and Youth in Schools and Families Illustrated by Numerous Engravings, by Mrs. L.N. Fowler, 1848.
Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, the antebellum era's pre-eminent spokesmen for phrenology, operated a publishing house, mail-order business, and museum of human and animal skulls. The Fowler brothers' publishing endeavors extended to their families as well. This book by Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler (Mrs. Lorenzo Fowler) is part of two volumes, directed toward parents and teachers, designed to aid children in using the principles of phrenology "to know themselves" and achieve moral, useful lives.
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


Illustration & Explanation of "Parental Love"
The pre-eminent spokesmen for phrenology, Orson and Lorenzo Fowler operated a publishing house, mail-order business, and museum of human and animal skulls. They zealously promoted phrenology as a practical tool for self-improvement. This excerpt from their book New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology illustrates their accessible, if simplistic, approach to understanding and altering character traits.
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


Illustration & Explanation of "Inhabitiveness"
Orson and Lorenzo Fowler were phrenology's pre-eminent spokesmen, operating a publishing house, mail-order business, and museum of human and animal skulls. They zealously promoted phrenology as a practical tool for self-improvement. This excerpt from their book New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology illustrates their accessible, if simplistic, approach to understanding and altering character traits
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


1. Hints about Phrenology, Ladies Magazine Vol 6, 1833.
Phrenology represented an early attempt to understand the mind and human behavior by linking personality traits or "faculties" to the physical organ of the brain. Phrenologists divided the mind into 35 "faculties" that were ascribed to specific parts of the brain and locations on the cranium, the size and shape of which determined the strength or weakness of each trait. This chart of the head, from Ladies Magazine 1833, was a common sight in pharmacies, magazines, and books. It was also painted on plaster or porcelain busts and carried about by the thousands of phrenologists who crisscrossed the country in the antebellum period
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


2. Hints about Phrenology, Ladies Magazine Vol 6, 1833.
Phrenology's emphasis on the physical rather than the spiritual or moral aspects of humanity made it largely a secular movement. However, many fervent Christians adopted its precepts and sought to reconcile them with Christianity. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the nation's most prominent clergymen in the mid-nineteenth century, was a public supporter of phrenology. This article argues that phrenology, unlike other nineteenth-century approaches to understanding the mind, proves that religious feelings are innate.
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


Lectures on Phrenology and its Application, The New Yorker Vol 7, 1839.
Horace Greeley, a prominent newspaper publisher and social reformer, was an early convert to phrenology. He served on the board of the American Phrenological Society and printed George Combe's lectures on phrenology in their entirety in his New Yorker newspaper in 1833. Combe, a Scottish lawyer, toured the U.S. in 1838 - 39 and helped to popularize phrenology. By the 1840s, Combe’s emphasis on scientific research and study of the mind was eclipsed by the more practical phrenology movement led by Orson and Lorenzo Fowler.
Exhibit: Phrenology.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.