For my research project with the New-York Historical Society, I am focusing on the Fowler brothers’ Phrenological Head. The head was a part of the “Bella C. Landauer: Collector of Enterprise” exhibit in 2003 but is thought to have been made sometime between 1890 and 1910. The ceramic head is marked with the teachings of phrenology, a psuedo-science of the nineteenth century. It taught that certain sections of the human skull corresponded with certain personality traits or characteristics. The belief was that by “reading” the bumps and sizes of sections of the skull with an instrument such as a caliper, an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, and overall mental state could be analyzed and better understood. Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim first popularized phrenology in Europe around 1800. George Combe brought phrenology to the United States around 1820, promoting the practice on the lyceum circuit. The Fowler brothers, Lorenzo and Orson, after hearing of Combe’s work, became the American champions of phrenology. They opened their Phrenological Cabinet and Institute in lower Manhattan in 1834 and published the American Phrenological Journal from 1838 to 1842. With their brother-in-law, Samuel Wells, they also ran Fowler & Wells, a publishing house, out of Clinton Hall in Manhattan. In the zenith of the phrenology movement, the Fowlers’ Phrenological Cabinet rivaled P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in popularity. It was a doctor’s office, museum, and library; patrons could get their heads examined, check out some celebrities’ examinations, and do some light reading all in one trip. In the following weeks, I’m planning on looking into the influence of phrenology and its place in the nineteenth century counter-culture movement.
-Julianna St. Onge