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.
Orson Squire Fowler was born in 1809 in western New York, not far from where Rochester is today. It was basically frontier at the time. His parents were Vermonters who’d moved west, and, as the first white child thought to be born in the region, much was expected of young Orson. His family couldn’t entirely afford to put him through Amherst College, where he studied to be a preacher. So Fowler did handyman work for the school, as well as chopping and hauling wood for other students.
Everything changed for Fowler when he and his classmate Henry Ward Beecher attended a lecture in Boston by the German scientist Dr. Johann Spurzheim on the relatively new science of phrenology. Soon Fowler was getting a good feel of the craniums of his fellow Amherst students, giving informal phrenological readings at two cents per head. Fowler and Beecher lectured on the subject, converting New Englanders with their zeal. Beecher went on to become a prominent abolitionist and clergyman. Raking in forty dollars for his first solo appearance as a phrenological expert, Fowler scrapped the idea of a career in the pulpit.
In 1835, Fowler and his younger brother, Lorenzo, set up shop in New York City at 135 Nassau Street, where they wrote, published, and arranged speaking engagements. The following year, he published Phrenology Proved, Illustrated, and Applied, Accompanied by a Chart, which would go through some sixty-two editions before 1860. Homing in on the reading public’s hunger for tips on what we today would call “getting it on,” Fowler’s next book, Love and Parentage, Applied to the Improvement of Offspring, Including Important Directions and Suggestions to Lovers and the Married Concerning the Strongest Ties and the Most Sacred Momentous Relations of Life, was another success. After that, in the spirit of the age, Fowler chimed in on just about every reform topic there was, warning against corsets, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, as well as “secret sins” and “self pollution.” Fowler worried that self-pleasure resulted in the dangerous dissipation of vital forces, and he implied that he could pick the chronic masturbator out of a lineup: “The private sensualist may be further known by his pallid, bloodless countenance, and hollow, sunken, and half-ghastly eyes, the lids of which will frequently be tinged with red; while, if his indulgence has been carried very far, he will have black and blue semi-circles under his eyes, and also look as if worn out, almost dead from want of sleep, yet unable to get it, etc.”
Fowler wasn’t keen on the theater, music, magazines, or novels of the day, either. He wrote guides to improving memory and championed women’s fitness. In many ways he was impressively progressive and modern: he advocated women’s suffrage, worried about the effects of impending overpopulation, and championed the use of human waste as compost. But he was largely silent on the most significant nineteenth-century reform movement, the abolition of slavery. Fowler was basically a racist, who used his science to assert that Jews were innately “acquisitive” and Africans were well suited to being servants. Pro-slavery writers cited his work.
Taking the idea of eugenics beyond just the careful selection of genetic stock, Fowler believed in the importance of “parental states” at the time of conception: whether a man or woman was sober, excited, happy, depressed, or deranged would all play a corresponding role in the mental makeup of the offspring. “Every sexual conjunction must be conducted precisely as if it were to result in its legitimate end, offspring,” he wrote.
Fowler and his phrenologically derived philosophies were ubiquitous. Scores of memoirs, biographies, and histories include reference to personalized readings performed by Fowler as evidence of an individual’s natural strengths and attributes. Judging from John Muir’s The Cruise of the Corwin, there was even a schooner, the O. S. Fowler, which traveled the coast of Alaska in the 1880s. Fowler also launched a planned community, based on his theories, in Colorado. The idea was to start a health colony of fruit growers and farmers who would raise vegetables and livestock. (As the plan took shape Fowler took ill and returned east, where he eventually died.) On the site today stands the town of Fowler.
Though such notables as Mark Twain and Oliver Wendell Holmes doubted phrenology, the practice was in vogue. General George Custer and the radical abolitionist John Brown both had readings performed by one of Fowler’s associates. Walt Whitman, after visiting the Fowler offices for a phrenological analysis, eventually became a staff writer for a Fowler publication, Life Illustrated. (The first edition of Leaves of Grass was advertised and sold by Fowlers and Wells, the family’s publishing company.) Fowler even once felt the contours of the head of the journalist and pioneering women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller, who was, in fact, the great-aunt of Buckminster Fuller, the thinker and designer, whose obsession with the sphere and ideas of world-changing architecture points directly back to O. S. Fowler.
America in the 1800s was awash with competing reformers, each selling a cause—whether it was abolition, women’s rights, temperance, or children’s education. O.S. Fowler was a near-total reformer. And when he published A Home for All, or, The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building: New, Cheap, Convenient, Superior and Adapted to Rich and Poor, in 1848, he imagined his octagonal houses as the place where all his lifestyle hobbyhorses, ergonomic innovations, and child-rearing improvements would coalesce, bringing about a happier, healthier, wealthier, and more stimulated mankind. “Why so little progress in architecture, when there is so much in all other matters?” he asked in the book’s opening pages.
Fowler was a quintessentially American character. Like Ben Franklin, he concerned himself with solving practical problems (he was big on indoor toilets and dumbwaiters), and he preached a doctrine of hard work and frugality. He was a pragmatic transcendentalist who, like Emerson, thought that a natural beauty emerged from utility. The “nearer we can approach the circular form, the better,” he wrote.
Anticipating a mystical spiritual evolution for humanity, he believed man was “destined to become almost infinitely more elevated in the scale of intellectual and moral excellence than he now is,” and that humans would change slowly over time into “terrestrial angels” and Earth would eventually become “a perfect paradise.” If a properly proportioned and configured house could bring about such harmonious human living, then obviously an ill-designed domicile could spell ruin. “How much fretfulness and ill temper, as well as exhaustion and sickness, an unhandy house occasions,” he wrote. “Nor does the evil end here. It often, generally, by perpetually irritating mothers, sours the tempers of their children, even before birth, thus rendering the whole family bad-dispositioned by nature, whereas a convenient one would have rendered them constitutionally amiable and good.”
A shrewd student of the public’s gullibility, he had something in common with P. T. Barnum. (Fowler, who could sell the public on water cures, animal magnetism, and other forms of quackery, was arrested in Buffalo in 1857 on charges of practicing medicine without a license.) His views on the significance of magnetism and sexual energy permeated his mode of salesmanship. “No man can ever become extra great, or even good, without the aid of powerful sexuality,” wrote Fowler in Creative and Sexual Science, published in 1875. “This alone so sexes his ideas and feelings that they impregnate the mentalities of their fellow-men.”
He was a long-winded love-potion salesman, hinting that his “parenting” advice held the secrets to great sex. Because of his prolific writings about sex, Fowler was once called “the foulest man on Earth,” and subject to charges that he “sustained disreputable relations with female quacks in several parts of the country, and wrote them grossly immoral letters, undertaking to systematize sexual vice.” At the height of his writing career he had two secretaries to whom he dictated his books. He wrote chapters explaining, from a phrenological perspective, why men found big breasts and rear ends appealing in women. He stressed the importance of sexual attraction, pleasure, and satisfaction with respect to happy marriages and healthy homes. Indeed, Fowler saw a connection between the drive to procreate and the urge to construct homes. “[M]en have a literal mania for building, which increases with civilization,” he wrote. One’s home was an extension of one’s character, and, therefore, also a natural means of attracting an appropriate mate. And it was fitting that the family would be created and take shape inside the rooms of such a suitably proportioned home.
With an obsessive streak worthy of Martha Stewart, Fowler basically wanted to dictate how every room in a house was arranged, what trees were planted outside (cherry and peach, climate permitting), and the number of coats of varnish (three) to be applied to the (mahogany) balusters. Employing a kind of Yankee feng shui, he reasoned that the octagonal form, with a central staircase, minimized the amount of work needed to move about, allowing people and air to flow properly through a structure. “It is now submitted whether you cannot go from room to room and story to story, about this house, with less than half the steps requisite to get from room to room and story to story, in other houses as usually arranged,” he wrote in his typically florid fashion.
The gravel walls Fowler was so enthusiastic about were made from a type of concrete that used lime, gravel, broken slate, and even crushed oyster shells instead of cement. Fowler suggested the gravel walls be used as a kind of veneer or stucco, both inside and outside. Though thousands followed the book’s instructions, Fowler’s obsession with gravel walls turned out to be misguided, and many of the structures soon cracked and crumbled. “O. S. Fowler… seems to have proceeded without much attention to the proportion or principles of mortar-making,” read one letter to the editor in the New England Farmer at the time.
But the central tenet of his octagonal dogma was that, in addition to its relationship to the circle, the octagon allowed for more square footage enclosed within a smaller amount of wall space. Big was good, small was bad. Fowler felt that cramped bedrooms caused those living in them to keep breathing their sick breath, their toxic exhalations. “Waking up in the small room, you feel dull, stupid, gloomy, oppressed, yawny, lax and all unstrung in body and mind,” he wrote. “In the spent air of your small room you discharge the poisonous carbonic acid gas, generated by the life process, but slowly, or rather, re-inhale, about as fast as you discharge it, and this will soon leave your system loaded down with disease, and cause a lot of sickness.” Fowler further stated that the expense of building bigger and more spacious rooms would easily be offset by savings in doctor’s bills. But he couldn’t resist returning to the foolish recklessness of living in small rooms: “To occupy them is wicked, because destructive of health and life, and therefore suicidal.”
Fowler didn’t view just square footage as a means of achieving better ventilation or uniform heating. Everything had its place in his houses. He championed multi-roomed homes, with a separate space for just about every possible activity. Fowler was ahead of his time in thinking that every child should have his or her own room. He also thought any good home would include individual rooms for sewing, dancing, exercise, and playing, in addition to living rooms, kitchens, libraries, sitting rooms, and numerous closets. In his own octagonal house built in Fishkill, New York, and completed in 1853, Fowler had sixty rooms, and not one too many, he liked to say. All those crazy angles created by the eight-sided exterior and Fowler’s floor plans tended to demand the inclusion of unusual nooks and, as one newspaper noted, “more crazy little closets than the normally ingenious house designer dared think of.”
During his life, Fowler was known primarily for his work as a phrenologist, but it’s possible that the still-standing octagonal houses he inspired might be his most enduring legacy. Like the craze for reading head bumps, Fowler’s octagonal houses were out of fashion by the end of the nineteenth century. The public had lost interest in phrenology, and Fowler could no longer count on lecture tours to pay his bills. (To be fair, later neuroscientists gave credit to phrenology for locating specific functions in different regions of the brain.) As phrenology was being discredited, so were other parts of Fowler’s reputation, particularly his books about sex. In 1881 anti-obscenity crusaders went after Fowler, calling him a “social leper,” and suggesting that his writings were calculated to “excite the passions of ignorant people.” Weighing in on the allegations against Fowler, the Chicago Tribune wrote: “[I]t is openly charged that the man Fowler has debauched the minds of young females, and sown the seeds of a prostitution of the sexes under the guise of education, to an extent that is simply alarming.”
In the 1880s Fowler moved to Sharon, Connecticut, where he died, in August 1887, from a cold caught by gardening on a warm day and resting without a coat in the shade. When he had first sold his opulent octagonal house in Fishkill, in 1859, Fowler reportedly got $150,000 (that’s a little more than $3 million today); the house, known as “Fowler’s Folly” by the locals, had a sad decline. First an outbreak of typhoid had killed several guests there. The tragedy was abetted by the proximity of a porous concrete cesspool leaking into the house’s water supply. The last time the house was sold, in 1870, it went for $800 (around $13,000 today). By order of the officials of the town of Fishkill, Fowler’s Folly fell to dynamite in 1897, ten years after the death of Oswald Squire Fowler.
One can dismiss Fowler as a sex-obsessed, overreaching ego-maniac, but his ideas about the central importance of sexual energy in the cultivation of happiness aren’t so foreign to a modern world that has internalized the theories of Freud. And even if we think we know better, many of us think we can tell something about the real nature of people by looking into their eyes, which probably isn’t much different from trying to assess someone’s character based on the shape of their head. “Proportion is a paramount natural law. Nature maintains equilibriums throughout all her productions and functions,” he wrote. The contours of a woman’s backside, the height of a child, the lumps on our heads, the configuration of our houses—these details had profound implications in our lives, according to Fowler. He speaks to that simple and gullible part of us that suspects the core truth is sometimes coded in the shapes before our eyes, that sex holds the key to most things, that we could be healthier and more contented if only we arranged our homes just exactly right.