Bless Me, What a Bump!


A man sits while a woman examines his head. The right side of the image shows a mapped skull placed on a table.

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Outlines of Phrenology (1824)

Although any of the didactic literature on phrenology might be appropriate here, George Combe’s Outlines of Phrenology is especially appropriate. Combe was one of the earliest advocates of phrenology in the UK; he initiated both the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and its journal, the Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. Combe published several phrenological tracts on the philosophical and scientific backgrounds of phrenology and on its use in education, criminal investigation and correction, and theology (Spencer 292). Combe’s books were sold widely in the United States; he also lectured in the United States from 1838 to 1840 (“Advertisement” 76; “Article VI” 187).

Outlines of Phrenology was first published in 1824 and was reprinted in additional editions throughout the nineteenth century (Spencer 292). The pamphlet provided a short explanation of the history of phrenology and its main claims before turning to the methodology of phrenological examination. The majority of the text is concerned with descriptions and illustrations of each organ of interest to phrenologists. The discussion of organ 21, imitation, is typical. After providing the location of the organ (“on the two sides of benevolence”), Combe gives a short discussion of the faculty the organ controls: “The faculty gives the talent for Imitation in general. It contributes to render a poet or author dramatic . . . It aids the portrait-painter, sculptor, and engraver; and it gives the tendency, in speech and conversation, to suit the action to the words” (17). He further provides illustrations of head shapes with large or small organs of imitation (Combe 17).
This image satirically portrays a phrenological reading. Considering that may caricatures of phrenology are set in a consultation room or lecture hall, the lack of specific context may suggest a private setting. Significantly, the viewer is invited to draw obvious parallels between the heads featured in the image: all three are in some way visually separated from any body, they all fall on the same diagonal line, and both the phrenological examiner and the mapped head gaze upon the head of the man being examined.

Mind. Medicine. Phrenology.

Bless Me, What a Bump! participates in a larger tradition of phrenological satirization, poking fun at the pseudo-science's claim to an infallible "reading" of the subject while further commenting on the extent of its popularity. The image’s non-professional characters and setting stress phrenology’s role as a “scientific” tool that enables non-experts to “read” each other, both as a form of entertainment and as a way to acquire knowledge. From its start, phrenology was popular with members of the upper middle class; eventually it “trickled down to clerks, shopkeepers and artisans” who learned the art of phrenology from lectures or from pamphlets (Stearns 2). Popular culture was flooded with literature on phrenology; 64,250 volumes on phrenology were published between 1823 and 1836 (Stearns 1).
The mapped head was associated with phrenology from its earliest publications throughout the nineteenth century. It provided a useful map of the locations on the skull discussed in phrenological tracts. One contemporary reviewer explained, “The author’s mode of treating the subject is illustrated and rendered very intelligible by a plate of the human head having the organs delineated” (“The Phrenological System”).

Social caricature satirized popular trends not simply in order to entertain but also to inform or alter public opinion. Caricatures of phrenology taught the “clinical gaze” by illustrating the pseudo-science’s usefulness (or lack thereof) in the interpretation of human appearance and—because the exterior or visible was here equated with the interior or unknown—in the reading of human character (Foucault 103ff).
Combe, George. Outlines of Phrenology. 5th ed. London: Longman & Co., 1835. Print.

Cowling, Mary. The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Karp, Diane. "Madness, Mania, Melancholy: The Artist as Observer." Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 80.342 (1984): 1-24. Print.

McLaren, Angus. "Phrenology: Medium and Message." The Journal of Modern History 46.1 (1974): 86-97. Print.

Patten, Robert. "Conventions of Georgian Caricature." Art Journal 43.4 (1983): 331-8. Print.

Patten, Robert. George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art: 1792-1835. Vol. 1. Rutgers UP, 1992. Print.

“The Phrenological System.” The Bristol Mercury 1697 (September 30, 1822). Print.

Spencer, Frank. History of Physical Anthropology. New York: Garland Pub., 1997. Print.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. Body Criticism: Imagining the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. "From 'Brilliant Ideas' to 'Fitful Thoughts': Conjecturing the Unseen in Late Eighteenth-Century Art." Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte 48.3 (1985): 329-63. Print.

Stearns, Peter N. “Popular Science and Society: The Phrenology Movement in Early Victorian Britain.” Journal of Social History 8.1 (1974): 1-20. Print.
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