by Mary Miles, PhD
“Phrenology is prospering with a mighty rush,” Orson Fowler, publisher of the American Phrenological Journal, declared in 1849; “it is effectually shaping the public mind.” Fowler had reason to boast. His publishing firm of Fowlers and Wells was a clearing-house for information on some of the most prevalent public interests of Americans in the nineteenth century. They popularized phrenology, a system of character analysis built around the belief that intrinsic personality traits are revealed in the physical shape and appearance of the head, and hydropathy, a doctrine that promoted the healing powers of water. Fowlers and Wells used print material to advance these reform movements. They sold over 90,000 copies of The Phrenological Almanac in 1846. During 1850, they circulated The American Phrenological Journal to 30,000 subscribers. In 1852, they printed 50,000 copies of The Water-Cure Journal and hoped to garner 100,000 yearly subscribers by 1860. They sold books about phrenology and the water-cure by the dozens. What factors enabled the Fowlers to wield such influence in American culture?
Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, their sister Charlotte, and her husband, Samuel Wells, were all born between 1809 and 1820, and grew up in western New York State. Growing up in the “burned over district” the Fowler siblings and Wells developed a deep appreciation for the power of religion and reform to transform society. As children playing in a newly settled landscape etched by dramatic gorges, cresting waterfalls, and deep lakes, the young Fowlers and Wells explored a region whose geographic and demographic conditions nourished a wide range of unorthodox religious and reform movements. This striking countryside was mirrored in the imaginations of the Mormons, Spiritualists and Mesmerists who moved across it. Upwardly mobile, Protestant families in the Northeast, such as the Fowlers and Wells, were in the vanguard of a newly emerging reform ethic in America. By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans were eradicating the perceived barrier between practical and spiritual pursuits by attacking social and political problems with religious passion. Their religious beliefs compelled them to believe that the worldly arenas of politics, society, and economics had sacred significance.
The young Fowlers and Wells emerged from this background to enter the publishing world in the midst of dramatic changes in printing and reading practices. Americans had always recognized the power of text. Protestants enshrined the Word at the intersection between the individual believer and God. Revolutionaries rallied support through political pamphlets and founders engraved their government structures in documents. Patriots in the new nation depended upon words -- Biblical axioms or historic lessons -- to inculcate the virtue that they believed was essential in a republican citizenry. Virtuous reading material was sure to dominate the limited libraries in most homes where Bibles, almanacs, and perhaps some historic texts became worn with use over the years. In the early national period, the book business was small and localized, limited to expensive, imported texts. The relative expense and scarcity of books meant that reading was a controlled, orderly activity as Americans scrutinized their limited volumes in search of moral lessons.