Project (2011-2012)

Woman, Know Thyself: Producing and Using Phrenological Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century America

In 1848, on the cover of the American Phrenological Journal, the firm of Fowlers and Wells instructed readers to turn the page and henceforth, “know thyself.” Using this ancient Greek aphorism, phrenologists drew in men and women alike with the promise of understanding themselves and others. But phrenology had a particular appeal for many women, who saw it as a new opportunity to learn about the mind and body in the natural world.

In antebellum America, as the industrial economy seemed to divide public and private, production and consumption, masculine and feminine, phrenology allowed women and men to stand within and between these binaries. White, middle-class women, in particular, used phrenology to affirm “true womanhood” and go beyond it at the same time. But as women sought information about who they were, many of them tried to designate who they were not, placing themselves high in moral, mental, and physical hierarchies, and demoting others.

This project explored the production and consumption of phrenological knowledge as theoretical and practical opportunities to negotiate gender. At a time when “science” itself had few boundaries, women became readers, consumers, proselytizers, and practitioners of this knowledge system. By encouraging followers to “know thyself,” phrenology blurred the lines of expertise and the lines of gender, creating an interplay between users and producers. In these ways, phrenology allowed for women to venture beyond the bounds of womanhood, but not go too far off the map.