Presentation by JCB Fellow Kathrinne Duffy
Kathrinne Duffy (Brown University), Interdisciplinary Opportunities Fellow
"The Phrenologists: Participatory Knowledge in Antebellum America"
“It is now my desire and determination, to afford every possible facility for the spread of Phrenology among all classes; and in my way, by cheap publications, private lectures, supplying societies with libraries and specimens, &c. &c….” So O.S. Fowler, America’s preeminent phrenologist, described his mission in 1843. Proponents of phrenology believed that a person’s character could be discerned from the shape of their skull. The science had a major influence on nineteenth-century American culture, in part due to its radically consumer-oriented nature. Itinerant lecturers cultivated a conversational tone and invited audience participation. Publishers heralded the cheapness of their books and pamphlets, boasting of their accessibility to “the million.” Cranial examiners offered customers practical advice regarding work, marriage, and health. The meaning of the science shifted in relation to its audience, as phrenologists adapted their message to appeal to a wide range of people. Through the rise and fall of its commercial viability, phrenology illuminates the workings of “participatory knowledge,” one corner of the antebellum trade in ideas.
The reading room will close to researchers at 3:30pm.