a cavity of humour

Orson Squire Fowler (1809 – 1887) was the foremost proponent of phrenology in the United States when that pseudo-science was all the rage. He was the creator of the architectural design of octagon houses, a form which spread across the nation; and he was the author of one of the more notorious sex manuals in Victorian times.

image found here

From 1838 to 1854 Fowler’s office in Clinton Hall in Manhattan attracted notable Americans who wished to have their character analyzed by the new science. Mark Twain, ever the skeptic, had his head read by Fowler a number of times.

image found here

“When I entered his office, Fowler received me with indifference, fingered my head in an uninterested way, estimating my qualities in a bored and monotonous voice. He said I possessed amazing courage, an abnormal spirit of daring, a pluck, a stern will, a fearlessness without limit.

head knife block found here

I was simply astonished at this, and gratified, too; I had not suspected it before. But then he foraged over on the other side of my skull and found a bump there called “Caution.” This bump was so tall, so mountainous, that it reduced my “Courage” bump to a mere hillock by comparison. Although that “Courage” bump had been so prominent up to that time—according to his description of it—that it ought to have been a capable thing to hang my hat on—it amounted to nothing now in the presence of that Matterhorn which he called my “Caution.”

Matterhorn found here

He explained that if the Matterhorn had been left out of my scheme of character, I would have been one of the bravest men who ever lived. But that my “Cautioness” was so prodigiously superior to it that it abolished my courage and made me almost spectacularly timid.

“Timid Imp” found here

He continued his discoveries, with the result that I came out safe and sound at the end, with a hundred great and shining qualities—but which lost their value and amounted to nothing because each of the hundred was coupled up with an opposing defect which took all the effectiveness out of it.

However, he found a CAVITY in one place where a bump should have been in anybody else’s skull. That CAVITY, he said, was all alone, all by itself, occupying a solitude, and it had no opposing bump, however slight in elevation, to modify and ameliorate its perfect completeness and isolation.

image found here

He startled me by saying that that CAVITY represented a total absence of a “Sense of Humor!”

He now became most interested. Some of his indifference disappeared.. He almost grew eloquent over what he had discovered. He said he often found bumps of HUMOR which were so small that they were hardly noticeable, but that in his long experience this was the first time he had ever come across a CAVITY where that bump out to be.

image found here

I was hurt, humiliated, resentful, but I kept these feelings to myself. At bottom I believed his diagnosis was wrong, but I was not certain. In order to make sure, I thought I would wait until he should have forgotten my face and the peculiarities of my skull—and then come back again and see if he had really known what he had been talking about, or had only been guessing.

After three months I returned, but under my own name this time, heralding my arrival with a card bearing both my name and my nom de guerre. Once more he made a striking discovery—the CAVITY was gone, and in its place was a Mount Everest—figuratively speaking – 31,000 feet high, the loftiest BUMP OF HUMOR he had ever encountered in his life! Again, I carried away an elaborate chart. It contained several sharply defined details of my character, but it bore no resemblance to the earlier chart. These experiences have given me a prejudice against phrenology which has lasted until now.”

image found here

Society was not surprised when Fowler also wrote on sex, for what else could one expect from a man who was opposed to tight corsets and who had been married three times?  The end to his popularity came with the release of a 1,052-page tome entitled Creative and Sexual Science, a volume intended to teach married couples how to love scientifically. Its topics included:

How to promote sexual vigor, the prime duty of every man and woman.

 How to judge a man or woman’s sexual condition by visible signs.

 How young husbands should treat their brides.

How to increase their love and avoid shocking them.

How to increase the joys of wedded life, and how to increase female passion.

With this publication poor Fowler’s reputation was shattered, and he died in obscurity in 1887.

Published in: on February 1, 2012 at 7:14 am  Comments (52)  
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52 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You know, I do think that the funniest writers are so because they do not employ a sense of humour in real life.

  2. Funny…

    • Twain usually was

  3. Looks like Twain exposed Fowler’s cavities. USA experienced a wide appreciation for these pseudo sciences in 1800’s. I think it was an effort to believe there was still some magic and enchantment to life as a reaction to empiricism which sterilized life into compartments of mathematical calculations and the laws of physics. It still exists here and is expressed by vehement disbelief in evolution and global warming.

    • My thoughts exactly, Carl.

  4. the shape of my head was dramatically altered due to a car accident in ’82. did my personality change as a result? or did the newly formed divots in my head appear magically as the result of being hit by a tractor trailer JUST to bring my head shape into alignment with my personality?

    all i know? i will never be one of those really attractive bald women… my head looks like a golf course.

    • so all that fun we had in Seville, Lesbos, New York and Chicago…. I’ve got a car accident to thank for that?

  5. He may get better results if he has his clients bend over.

    • The Stallone family are just plain weird

  6. 1052 pages??!! And how does one love scientifically, rationally?

    Felt my head while reading the first part – lots of bumps – now I’m wondering why…

    • Lots of bumps? I don’t seem to have any. My head feels really smooth.

  7. jackie stallone, the fowler of her day.

    • How right you are

  8. It would take a very special personality for a woman to wear a t-shirt like that.

    • Yeah i have a lot of suggestive t shirts but I wouldn’t wear that one

  9. I love Twain. Every time I read something like this, it just makes me love him even more.

    • I read a travel book by him once that wasn’t very interesting. i guess i was expecting funny….

      • Did you take everything as unsparing irony? He despised most places in his travels, I believe.

      • It was his journey to Australia and New Zealand and it was mostly dry historical facts.

  10. Quackery…as depressingly pervasive today as it’s always been.

    Better living through chemistry.

  11. I shall not rest until I live in a octagonal house.

  12. My cavity’s a mystery place – behind a secret door
    That opens up for birthday do’s and any passing ……

    I expect if I was T S Eliot I could think of some word that rhymes with ‘door’.

    • “Floor”? “Boor”? “War”? There MUST be a word somewhere – – -

      • Spore? Father-in[-law? tt doesn’t make any sense, and as McCavity is my favourite pussy I don’t think you should try.

  13. Phrenology sure sounds like a valid science to me!

  14. I would hate to be bald and have my entire psychology on display for every passing head-fondler!
    Fowlers book is online here Hee seems to have been ahead of his time.

    • Both my sons shave their heads so everything is on display. No cavities and no odd bumps.

  15. I find the pseudo sciences alive and well around my neck of the woods. I talked to someone the other day who was disappointed that her efforts in treating a schizophrenic child with lavender fragrance was going poorly. Just shoot me.

    • Lavender Oil? Oh she’s not diluting it enough. she needs to adopt the homeopathic method. Put a couple of drops in a swimming pool and throw the little blighter in.

  16. I don’t see why his sex manual shattered his reputation. Did none of his readers possess a Mount Everest-size Bump of Humour?

  17. Love that T-shirt, but then I’m a man.

    A thousand pages about how to have sex? Would you have the slightest will to do anything after wading through a tome that long?

    A very good friend of mine is into Reiki. Like all good friends, we taken teh piss out of each other all the time. But not on that. It’s the one subject about which he’s a bit touchy. I think it’s utter codswallop, but he feels too identified with (meaningless) “Reiki Master” certificate for us to have any useful discussions about it.

    • Is he into kinesiology too?

      *groan*

  18. I wish someone would fingered my head in ANY way. Uninteresting or not. I’ll take what I can get at this point.

    • So sad..haha

  19. I’m waiting fro phrenology to make a comeback. The time is ripe for a good pseudoscience craze.

  20. Let’s see, practicing the “science” of phrenology did not shatter his reputation but a sex manual did?

    I need that knife block.

    • that’s what struck me as weird.

  21. I think I shall refer to all of the human inadequacies that cross my path today as cavities.

  22. that head knife block freaks me out.

  23. Twain always = hilarious.
    Of course, I’m probably part of the 25%, so… you know.

  24. “Creative and Sexual Science, a volume intended to teach married couples how to love scientifically”

    Yeah.
    “scientifickally”
    As if the literature of the foregoing hmpfthousand years would have brought some result … idiot. Of course it kills the last bit of his fucking reputation in the oh so pure United States of America.
    I’d hope he at least showed some understanding of female sexuality, but I doubt. Anyway, if he has helped only one woman to an orgasm (by teaching his male readers) it’s not in vain.

  25. Maybe Mark Twain suddenly grew a sense of humor in the span of 3 months?! Ever consider that?!

    But seriously, we discussed phrenology in some of our psych classes and it is one of biggest jokes to ever call itself a science.

  26. Great post. What is curious about many pseudo-sciences of the 19th century is that they were struggling to apply rigorous methods to misplaced beliefs. They also sometimes had a small piece of truth that is pushed to the extreme. For example, a severe head injury can alter our memory, personality, or learning processes, but small incidental bumps do not influence personality traits.
    Apparently Fowler also publicly championed equal rights for women and protection of children from child labour.

  27. Is that a bump on your head or are you just happy to see me?

    Along with the crazy phrenology, the guy thought there was some need to “increase female passion”.

    Clearly a misguided soul. Send to Gimcrack Hospital Morgue. Double next month’s order of formaldehyde. STAT.

  28. Orson Squire – they knew a thing or two about naming back in ye olde times.

  29. There’s a shop near my house that sells phrenology heads in porcelain and I have always wanted to be rich enough to have a long row of them serving as hatstands. Alas, not YET.

  30. I’ve been trying to increase female passion for years!

  31. Just from just touching a head?

  32. 1052-page scientific tome on how to have sex?! No wonder quackery so often attracts more interest than science,

  33. He remained obscure until you unearthed him on your blog. Well done, Nurse.


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