Why Phrenology?

Alison Robinson
Social History of Antebellum America

     It is a fact commonly acknowledged that the citizens of antebellum America were given to extremes of interest.  Their avid participation in the "fads" that swept through society have frequently led to their characterization as a "bored" population, willing to be amused by practically anything.  Researchers point to the widespread acceptance of hocus-pocus pseudosciences like mysticism, mesmerism, and even phrenology, then wonder at the Jacksonians' semi-educated naivete.  Even literature is affected; Mark Twain's portrayal of con men prowling the Mississippi (and the many towns that welcomed them without question) has anchored itself in the modern consciousness.  Historical revisionists sigh over the proliferation of misogynistic, racist, and elitist reform movements.  Such evaluations, unflattering as they may seem, do accurately reflect a society that was largely founded on the eager acquisition of "culture"--manifested across the entire spectrum of public and private life.   Nineteenth-century society numbered its chairs, proudly displayed the bedstead in the front room (in itself a newly acquired feature of the household), and delighted in the bawdy spectacles of the travelling theater troupes.   Lecture halls and lyceums supported a new industry--that of the traveling lecturer--by luring eager crowds of men and women giddy in anticipation of "scientific" and "modern" principles.   Within so chaotic a framework, it's all too easy to dismiss (or miss entirely) the mentality that underpinned such activities, one that served not only a valid, but a vital purpose in the evolving society of Jacksonian America.   A closer evaluation of phrenology, one of the notorious pseudosciences of the period, will provide the social context that illuminates the true motivations behind the notoriously frenzied actions.

     Traditionally, analysis of antebellum social behavior has been simple.  People participated in such activities because they were bored.  After all, we reason, they had no computers, no television--not even a local movie theater showing the latest Hollywood blockbusters!  They even lacked the population centers capable of hosting such a spectacle.  In 1840, only one in nine individuals lived in a community of more than twenty-five hundred.1   Lives were confined to never-ending drudgery, back-breaking work, and in the evening only the glum prospect of rising in the morning to continue the cycle.   Little surprise can be found, therefore, in the widespread enthusiasm for any activity that offered deviation from the norm.  Certainly there are strong reasons that just such a rationalization forms the cornerstone of modern views, but there are clear and obvious limitations to the unquestioning acceptance of the theory.   The fault lies in the inherent modern bias this interpretation bears.  The girls of Lowell, to historical astonishment, protested neither twelve hour days nor six day weeks, because to them there was no apparent hardship involved.  After all, it was no longer or harder than life would have been on the farm.  Likewise, are we to assume that they spent their off hours pining for the leisure activities their grandchildren would later take for granted?


     A far more productive alternative is to discard so obviously a teleological view of history, and instead focus on those factors nineteenth-century inhabitants themselves would consider.  Already the character of the nation had radically changed from the Revolutionary and early Federal period.  By 1820, Americans had essentially fought two wars to assure their independence.  Each time the mighty British Empire had capitulated.  At home, families who had been colonists a generation before became natives in the face of European immigration.  Challenged by the physical vastness of the new nation, canals and railroads unrolled themselves across the countryside.  Factories settled alongside rocky New England creeks, and began disgorging mountains of manufactured goods available for acquisition, simultaneously revolutionizing the market.  A westerner, Andrew Jackson, campaigned and won the presidency.  Americans in the nineteenth century were going places, and they felt that they were going better and faster than their European brethren.  To many, the prosperity of the country must have indicated the physical victory of their grandfathers' ideological arguments for democracy, freedom, and the new-fangled "American Way."  The world was changing fast, and Americans felt themselves to be the vanguard of that change--a population "in motion, in a state of preparation or expectation."2

     Admittedly, change could and did bring challenges.   America's self-appointed role as the epitome of progress required success on all fronts.   Therefore, Americans channeled their energies into reform, engaging with the problems of lunatics, criminals, social vices, children, even the definition of "polite" society.3   Leaving nothing to chance, Americans sought to acquire, refine, or even create the tools that they required for the active building of the future.  Thus, many of the frivolous "fads" of the nineteenth century become, in essence, social laboratories, furnishing a driven population with a medium for advancement.  The lecture halls particularly functioned in this way, providing "all the basic categories of knowledge and an almost limitless range of topics," that were also "responsive to new situations requiring. . . the development of new knowledge."4

Equipping the Vanguard:

     Americans attacked social ills on three distinct, yet closely related fronts--morality, modernity, and methodology.  The deeply rooted Protestant theory of just deserts--that only those deserving are rewarded, became the foundation of the Jacksonian social reforms.  Americans first scrutinized their own morality, then recast their religion to adopt the intuitions discovered in their beliefs.  Thus emerged the Second Great Awakening.  There can be little coincidence that the populism, individualism, and enthusiasm Jacksonian Americans embraced politically was echoed in their religion.

     Modernity quickly became the byword of the times.  It was not enough to simply to improve the world; reform must be accomplished via the best, the newest, and the most scientific methods.  Lyceums became the focal point of dissemination.  The public critically evaluated the lecturers, judging their information "democratically" via the skills of the lecturer.  Surely, they reasoned, only sound thought, free of partisan and sectarian bias, would be able to pass the "severe test of repeated delivery before lyceum audiences in different parts of the country."5

     The firm convictions of morality, melded with and reinforced by a resolute faith in modernity, found expression in the physical reality of science.  Science provided a structured methodology for the investigation of all things--at once advancing progress and affirming the superiority of the American spirit.  Archaeology, sociology, psychology, modern medicine and astronomy--all can be traced to a birth, or rebirth, in the nineteenth century.  Also investigated in the period, although later dismissed and now derided, were the pseudosciences of phrenology and mesmerism.  However, it was the strong scientific foundations of phrenology that lent it the credibility to have so decided an impact on nineteenth-century society.

The Science of Phrenology:

     Unlike many fads, the roots of the pseudoscience known as phrenology are easy to trace.  Anatomist Franz Joseph Gall first began his study of the brain in the late eighteenth century.  Dismissing earlier notions that ideas and emotions originated in the "bodily viscera," Gall was convinced that the brain was the source of both.  Furthermore, the brain could not be completely occupied by only a single thought at a time.  Some specialization must occur, he reasoned, along the convoluted nodes found in dissections.

     Gall sought confirmation of his theory via his work as attendant physician to an asylum for the insane.  Observation of monomaniacs--individuals "enthralled by the urge to commit a specific form of aberrant behavior, be it theft, amatory excess, or whatever"--revealed that when not engaged in this monomania, they were able to relate with their surroundings in a relatively normal manner.  That they were capable of unaffected behavior indicated that it was a specialized area of the brain that was "diseased."  A careful mapping of the brain could therefore allow a close analysis of behavioral characteristics by noting variations within the "organic mental faculties."6

     Gall likened his "organic mental faculties" to muscles, and like muscles, assumed that extended use of a particular area could lead to its expansion, putting increasing amounts of pressure on the skull, and creating an eventual telltale "bulge" in the cranium.  Eager to reinforce his theory, Gall investigated prison populations--particularly those men convicted for particularly violent crimes.  To his satisfaction, there was a positive correlation between the inmates and a protuberance just above the curve of the ear.  Labeling the area "murder," he then began an exhaustive study of "exceptional" individuals, grouped according to their area of talent.  Twenty-seven distinct regions were discovered and labeled after stringent testing.  (See attached chart.)  Investigations were also begun into accident victims, dream typing, and animal comparisons.  Gall published his preliminary findings on "craniology" in 1798.7

     The turn of the century found Gall lecturing in Vienna.  Attracted to the revolutionary findings was a young medical student, Johan Gaspar Spurzheim, whom Gall soon invited to collaborate in his research.  The two lectured together, touring Europe, until they split in 1813 due to professional rivalry.  Spurzheim, Gall felt, was far too quick to draw conclusions before they were confirmed by research.  Spurzheim found Gall excessively cautious, and dubbing his work "phrenology,"resumed his tour, traveling frequently to Britain, and eventually to America.  It was from Spurzheim that the American phrenological movement drew its inspiration and guidance.8

     Spurzheim's arrival in 1832 brought little fanfare.  Uncharacteristically, Spurzheim exhibited little of his flair for dramatic revelations on the tour, instead gradually working his way from New York to Boston--lecturing, collecting specimens, and making quiet friends in the medical community.  Consequently, he was well received, with the Boston Medical Journal noting, "We believe that the efforts of Dr. S. will form among us a new era. . . and open, to the minds of the most intelligent, new and correct views of their moral and intellectual powers, and the best means of cultivating them all, in the most rational and successful manner."9  Spurzheim's unexpected death in Boston increased the attention focused on the movement, with powerful public supporters Josiah Quincy, Nathaniel Bowditch, and Nicholas Biddle soon joined by Samuel Gridley Howe and Horace Mann in disseminating the phrenological phenomenon.  Thus in 1833 we find a review of Alphabet of Phrenology. Critics at The New-England Magazine raved,

"We have never read so small a book, from which we derived so many new ideas.  In our author's mind, phrenology bears the same relation to natural and metaphysical science, that algebra does to arithmetic.  Conclusions, that Locke or Dugald Stewart would have reached by long chains of ratiocination, he jumps at.  Problems that would have posed them, he solves with the stroke of a pen.  We cannot in conscience hide our new light beneath a bushel."10

     Even in remote Athens phrenology had become well-known.  A letter in the Athenian, published as "The Way They Do Things in Athens," makes reference to the author's self-conscious awareness of his homespun outfit in church, but then compares a troupe of young dandies' brash behavior.  The author concludes with a study of the youths' heads, including their clever haircuts that "give them phrenologically correct shaped heads."  Written in 1831, such conversant familiarity indicates just how quickly the phenomenon was becoming an integral part of the Jacksonian mindset.11

     Phrenology's peak in the United States came with the visit of George Combe, the world's preeminent phrenologist, in 1838-1840.  Combe toured the Eastern Seaboard, lecturing to receptive audiences, sightseeing, and performing the ever-present readings on such diverse individuals as T.D. Weld, Black Hawk, Joseph Smith, and condemned murderer William Miller.12  Critics found it difficult to challenge the careful scientific evaluations of Gall, Spurzheim, and Combe, but did continue to object on moral and religious grounds, arguing that the science was "materialistic and lessened free will."13  The actual discrediting of phrenology must be assigned to the phrenologists themselves.  After the death of many early figures, insistence on strict scientific standards and training, as well as new research, declined.  "Practical phrenologists" emerged to meet the eager response by free public lectures coupled with expensive private readings.  Such practitioners--often lacking both training and integrity--were decried as charlatans by more knowledgeable individuals, but the proverbial damage had been done.  Even serious students of the system, like J.S. Grimes, proved erratic, combining radical new theories with established wisdom on the subject.  Thus arose the later pseudosciences--mysticism, mesmerism, etherology, and such--from the more structurally solid phrenological base.14  Mesmerism particularly offered the potential for excitement when performed by an expert, as concerned citizens of Athens noted, "The citizens. . . have not yet had practical demonstrations of the truth of the science. One or two pretenders have been here, whose utter failures have not. . . [settled] popular opinion in its favor.  A scientific and successful operator would no doubt be well received and liberally patronized among us."15  Athenians, along with the rest of Americans, were skeptical of the new science, but quite willing to be persuaded.  Ultimately, phrenology's popularity would fall to the new fads, but retained its (albeit somewhat sublimated) cultural niche, profoundly influencing American thought well into the 1870's.

Phrenology as a Cultural Phenomenon:

     From a sociological perspective, phrenology had it all.  It provided an explanation for human faults and talents, allowed for development and change, carried the endorsement of top doctors and scientists, and was accessible enough for the "common man" to understand.  As with any movement, however, the character of phrenology itself shifted over time.  Athenians who attended Mr. Olcott's lecture on phrenology in July of 1836,16 receiving general instructions on the development and applications of the subject, by 1847 where returning to hear Mr. Mills' theories on Phreno-Mnenotechy--improving one's memory through the phrenological development of the brain.17  Within the interim decade phrenology had saturated American culture, with influences ranging as widely as fine arts to aesthetics to matchmaking to business advancement policies.

     The phrenological revolution in art had as its antecedents the neoclassical revival and romanticism.  Therefore, artists of the period sought not simply to create; they applied phrenological principles to the ancient sculptures, and finding them lacking, sought to improve on Greece and Rome.  Colbert tells us, ". . . the artistic nude at the center of efforts to effect the physiological salvation of American society.  Statuary and painting might rescue womankind . . . enabling future generations to become worthy successors to the citizens of Athens and Florence."18   Painted works echoed the marble, but perhaps the most fascinating facet of the artistic revolution is found in obsessive phrenological measurements for the busts of such commanding figures as Daniel Webster, John Slidell, Andrew Jackson, Edward Everett, and John C. Calhoun.  It was hoped that a faithful recreation of the proportions would communicate not simply the aesthetic qualities of the distinguished to the viewer, but their character and genius as well.   In keeping with the monomania with self-development that pervaded the nineteenth century, concerns over the destiny of the young citizens of the republic were assuaged by "a theory of art that was tailored to the aspirations of Americans. . . [Phrenology provided] standards by which to measure their progress."19

     Nor were the lesser arts ignored.   Women were encouraged to part their hair in the middle, then draw it smoothly back to a bun at the nape of the neck, both to allow an easier analysis of their profile and to exaggerate the supposed "maternal" and "feminine" regions of the head.  Often, vocations or marriages were influenced by a phrenological reading.  Clara Barton, read by Combe at the age of seven, was told that she had great capacity for caring and tenderness, as well as determination and strength.  Spouses were chosen to complement strengths or weaknesses.  Edgar Hopkins, read by the Fowler brothers in 1863, was warned to "choose a wife who complimented him often, as he could not stand to be scolded."20  The same reader recommended Hopkins pursue the coal business.

     Such a blending of personal and professional readings were not uncommon.  Well into the 1850's it was common to note phrenological aptitudes in employment advertisements, an indication of both its pervasive presence and perceived usefulness.  It is telling to note that phrenology retained its applications in the business and economic sphere long after the fad had passed, affirming the seriousness with which Americans sought standards of comparison.  An Ohio businessman, writing to the American Phrenological Journal, explained,

"Thus, for instance, I would encourage and cultivate a modest young man, whom I perceived possessed talent and high moral worth, and qualify him as soon as possible to take a responsible place in my business. One whose head indicated arrogance and ambition beyond his talent and integrity--who had a desire for responsible positions beyond what he was able to fill, I could understand him, and refrain from giving him power that he could not wield honestly or well."21

     Horlick argues that the continued dependence on phrenological readings in the professional world served as something of a stopgap, supplanting the increasingly defunct apprenticeship system in a way that was threatening to neither aspiring young men nor the conservative business owners.22  Such a mechanism for change was perfectly suited to the nineteenth-century mindset, with its uneasy ambivalence between the popular myth of social mobility, and the more comfortable conventions of social and professional channeling.

     While phrenology's limitations were eventually revealed by modern science, in many ways it was far more right than wrong.  Gall's seminal discoveries, coupled with the "nodal" theory of brain function, were confirmed by twentieth century psychologists.   Sociology can trace its beginnings to the fathers of the phrenological movement.  Even the social reforms of the nineteenth century owe a debt to the phrenological doctrines of development potential, educability, and the like.  In a more ephemeral way, however, phrenology contributed to the advancement of American society by empowering the population, giving them the modern, scientific foundation they required to control and shape the future.  It is for that reason that it should be remembered as more than a fad--it was a potent instrument of modernity.

Related Links:

The History of Phrenology on the Web

Maintained by John van Wyhe, Ph.D.--Very Comprehensive

Phrenology and the Fine Arts

Further exploration of Colbert's work--Excellent charts and graphics, as well as interactive areas.

Reading Heads and Ruling Passions

Educational, maintained by the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney

End Notes:

1. Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840. New York: HarperPerennial, 1988. p. 6.

2. Donald M. Scott, "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," The Journal of American History 66, no. 4. (March 1980): 801.

3. Steven Mintz. Moralists and Modernizers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. p. 80.

4. Scott, 802.

5. "Reviews and Literary Notices," Atlantic Monthly, VI (July 1860), 120. As quoted in Scott, 808.

6. Charles Colbert. A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 2

7. Colbert, 4.

8. Colbert, 7.

9. Boston Medial and Surgical Journal, VII. (Oct. 17, 1832) 162. As quoted by Robert E. Rigel, American Historical Review 39, No. 1 (Oct. 1933), 74.

10. H.T. Judson, "Alphabet of Phrenology," The New-England Magazine 5, no. 3(September 1833): 251.

11. "The Way They Do Things in Athens," Athenian, 7 July 1831.

12. Riegel, 76.

13. Riegel, 77.

14. Riegel, 78.

15. "Mesmerism," Southern Banner, 3 March 1843.

16. "Phrenology," Southern Banner, 2 July 1836.

17. "Lecture on Phreno-Mnenotechy," Southern Banner, 9 March 1847.

18. Colbert, 77.

19. Colbert, 73.

20. Allan S. Horlick, "Phrenology and the Social Education of Young Men," History of Education Quarterly 11, no. 1 (Spring, 1971): 32.

21. Letter to the American Phrenological Journal, requoted in Horlick, 27.

22. Horlick, 29.

This paper was produced as an assignment for History 4000, Antebellum Social History, at the University of Georgia.
Spring, 2003.