November 18, 2011

Phrenology: Victorian Entertainment

Phrenology is the study of lumps on heads to determine personality traits. While, producing giggles from us today, phrenology started out as a scientific discipline determined to link scull size and shape with brain function. A German scientist, Franz Joseph Gall is typically credited with starting this branch of study in 1796 which he termed "Cranioscopy."

He started writing "The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads," in 1809 although it was not published until 1819. The theory was never widely accepted by scientists but had a significant following and was extremely popular with the general public in the early to mid 1800s. It also saw a revival in the early 1900s. While many people were believers, others considered it a fun parlor game.

The Bronte sisters, Edgar Allen Poe,  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Herman Melville, used phrenology references in their works or were believers. A Phrenological examination of Charlotte Bronte can be found here at

Mark Twain disdained the theory and believers. In in his 1906 autobiography he admitted to going to a renowned phrenologist under a false name and receiving an examination and chart of his characteristics. He  then went back to the same phrenologist months later under his real name. He admitted the second chart expressed his personality rather well but that it looked nothing like the first chart that he got.

The Basics of Phrenology from Mrs. Hale's Receipts for the Million (1857):

Makes you want to grab a pair of forceps and measure your head, doesn't it? This sounds like it would be a fun party game for a Victorian themed party.


  1. How funny! I love reading about Victorian parlour games. . . Wish parties were like that now, with such variety.

  2. I LOVE Phrenology. I also love this history. Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. Cool! I always wondered what those ceramic heads were for!

  4. I have big lumps in "Philoprogenitivenes" and "Wonder."

  5. Very interesting. :-) It reminds me of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Have you been there?

  6. Sarah, I haven't gone yet but I've been wanting to go.


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