Phrenology: Why?

Alison Robinson
History 4000
Dr. Gagnon

I. Antebellum society--with a little armchair psychology for fun.

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 "bored," waiting to be amused by anything at all. We, as their descendents, point to the widespread acceptance of mysticism, mesmerism, and even phrenology, and we laugh at their semi-educated naivete, remembering Mark Twain's unflattering portrayal of con men on the Mississippi and the many towns that welcomed them. Historical revisionists sigh over misogynistic, racist, and elitist reform movements. Add to this very basic preconception a society that was, in fact, founded on the eager acquisition of "culture"--be it found in the numbering of chairs, the public display of the bedstead, the crowds that flocked to lecture halls--and glorified in its limited accumulation of "scientific" and "modern" principles, and it's all too easy to dismiss (or miss entirely) not only the fads themselves, but the very genuine need, not to mention legitimacy, of many of the psuedosciences of the nineteenth century.

On one hand, analysis of antebellum behavior is simple. People participated in such activities because they were bored. After all, they had no computers, no television--not even a local movie theater to be entertained by the latest Austin Powers! Indeed, they even lacked, in many cases, the population for a town to host the local movie theater. Lives were confined to never-ending drudgery, back-breaking work, and in the evening the glum prospect of rising in the morning to continue the cycle. There is little surprise, therefore, in the widespread enthusiasm for any activity that offered deviation from the norm. Certainly there are strong reasons that this argument has become the cornerstone of modern interpretation. There are clear and obvious limitations to the view, though. The girls of Lowell didn't protest twelve hour days, or six day weeks, because it was no longer or harder than life on the farm. Are we to assume that they spent their off hours pining for the leisure activities their grandchildren would take for granted?


A far more productive alternative is to discard this obviously teleological view of history, and instead focus on what factors nineteenth-century inhabitants themselves would consider. By 1820 Americans had essentially fought two wars to assure their independence. Families who had been colonists a generation before became natives in the face of European immigration. Canals and railroads unrolled across the countryside. Factories emerged and began disgorging mountains of goods available for acquisition. 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 were the vanguard of that change. [insert: savvy, self-confident period American preening, also numbers on growth, fact. productivity, etc.]

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. [handbooks, reformers . . . Mintz.] Leaving nothing to chance, Americans sought to acquire, refine, or even create the tools that they required for this active building of the future. Thus, many of the frivolous "fads" of the nineteenth century become instead social laboratories, furnishing a driven population with a medium for advancement.

II. Yay! Archaeology. . . finding the "tools," and proof to back it up.

Americans attacked social ills on three distinct, yet closely related fronts--morality, modernity, and methodology. Deeply rooted in Protestant ideology is the theory that only the deserving are rewarded. Basing themselves firmly on this foundation, Americans scrutinized their own morality, then recast their religion to adopt the intuitions they discovered. Thus emerged the Second Great Awakening. It's no coincidence that the populism, individualism, and enthusiasm Jacksonian Americans embraced was echoed in their religion. [Larkin, Cobb . . . Denominationalism, Revivalism, Rational basis--Americans had to CHOOSE/DELIBERATE the correct religion].

Modernity was 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. Lyceums became the focal point of dissemination. [across all spectra of public and private life/Mintz, Scott]

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, all sciences of the time, phrenology particularly, clearly reveal the motivations of the people who so eagerly sought their knowledge.

III. Phrenology 101

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 the earlier notion 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 behaviour 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.1

Gall likened his "organic mental faculties" to muscles, and like muscles, assumed that extended use of a particular area could lead to its expansion, pressure on the skull, and 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. Investigations were also begun into accident victims, dream typing, and animal comparisons. Gall published his preliminary findings on "craniology" in 1798.2

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.3

[phrenology comes to America, how it spread from the Northeast down, rise and fall of popularity--Riegel]

IV. Phrenology as a Cultral 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. Within the decade phrenology had saturated American culture, with influences ranging as widely as aesthetics to matchmaking to hairstyles 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."(77) 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, but their character and genius as well. ["Phrenology did more than identify the attributes required of those who sought to pursue a career in the arts. It also set out a theory of art that was tailrored to the aspirations of Americans. How where the citizens of the young republic to fulfill their destiny if they possessed no standards by which to measure their progress?" (Colbert 73)]

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 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. [excerpt of recommendation, Horlick]

Although phrenology's popularity faded with the rise of mesmerism, it continued to exercise a strong influence over the selection of individuals. 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." (Horlick 27)

V. Conclusion

~Evaluation of effectiveness of seeing Jacksonian Americans as movers and shakers rather than goofy bored people.






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

2. Colbert, 4.

3. Colbert, 7.


This paper was produced as a course requirement for History 4000 at the University of Georgia, 2003.