THE STRANGE CAREER OF O. S. FOWLER, POPULARIZER OF PHRENOLOGY AND YANKEE FENG SHUI
For much of the 1800s, Orson Squire Fowler was America’s foremost practitioner of phrenology. He pressed his fingertips against the skulls of the most famous men of nineteenth-century America—presidents, generals, philosophers, poets, artists, revolutionaries, criminals, and clergymen. Carefully he’d explore the contours of the cranium, measuring from ear to ear, looking for subtle protrusions, reflecting on the proportions of the lobes. By the time of his death, Fowler would be as well known for his writings on sex and for the obscenity charges brought against him. But another part of his legacy can still be seen today, in the unusual houses he inspired people to build. According to Fowler, life in an eight-sided house was healthier and happier than in the square variety. He was a tireless promoter of octagonal home design, which he thought would essentially improve humanity.
Some considered Fowler a con artist. He was called a “fraud” and a “charlatan” in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. He claimed to have a deep understanding of individual human destiny—the future written in head bumps. He may have thought of himself as a scientist, but he self-promoted like a sideshow barker. He exhibited brains and other parts collected from all over the world at his popular Phrenological Cabinet, located on Broadway near Canal Street in New York.
Fowler sometimes conducted demonstrations while blindfolded, to show disbelieving crowds that he could identify the heads of living robbers and degenerates who were brought into the crowd as part of his routine. (A colleague later alleged that this was a sham.) He was a peculiar and peripatetic figure, a public intellectual and a lifestyle guru. He traveled all over America and Europe in the name of phrenology, deducing people’s fundamental natures. If he looked at your forehead and told you, in grave tones, not to become a lawyer—because of your poor reasoning and underdeveloped language skills—you listened. He professed to know how shapes corresponded to deep and mysterious aspects of the personality.
It makes sense, then, that one of Fowler’s other great obsessions also involved the shape of things. When he urged Americans to live in octagonal houses, they obeyed. He wasn’t an architect, but thousands of people took his advice and built eight-sided abodes. The fad mushroomed in America during the mid-1800s. You can still see the houses today: a few thousand remain in New England, New York, and the Midwest. Depending on how ornate or simple the original buildings were, and how they’ve withstood the past century or so, they may resemble wedding cakes, enormous tiered hives, crude giant gems, or what Claes Oldenburg might do after being inspired by a socket-wrench set. Convinced he would change lives and refigure society, Fowler weighed in on all kinds of subjects—sex, memory, women’s rights, fashion, magnetism, temperance, vegetarianism, medicine, spirituality, and anything else that he felt like lecturing the public about—in dozens of pamphlets and enormous tomes, but for Fowler, octagonal houses were to be the venue within which almost all of his other reforms would come to life.
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