Octagon House Museum • Hudson Wisconsin

Fowler, Phrenology, and Architecture

Orson Fowler's book "The Octagon House: A Home for All"Orson Squire Fowler: A man renowned in the Victorian era for his wide range of expertise including studies in phrenology, architecture, and even more surprising for the era, sex manuals. Fowler’s ideas fit perfectly with the Victorian era’s culture of reform and individual betterment. Buried in an unmarked grave in the Bronx and now carrying a largely unknown name, his impact on society, especially the Northeast and the Midwest, created lasting effects. The Octagon House Museum is one of many pieces of Fowler that were left behind.

Fowler’s ideas of phrenology and architecture were very closely related. Phrenology is a “science” that was largely discredited for over 100 years before Fowler began to popularize the study. A phrenologist would examine his patient’s skull for bumps, and depending on their size and location, would determine certain personality traits. The phrenologist would then suggest various ways to self-improve: if a personality trait seemed under or over developed, the individual could make changes in his or her life to improve their health and lifestyle (McCarley). Phrenology gained popularity in the early to mid 1800s during a time when individual reform, personal development, and overall health were a strong part of the cultural climate. Fowler was renowned for being a, ‘“crusader of fitness’ and believed the ‘ideal society will arise from the physical renovation of all individual citizens’” (Young). The study of phrenology pursued that idea.

So where does St. Croix County fit into all of this strange pseudo-science? Fowler believed that the architecture of octagonal houses, ‘“satisfied two basic phrenological needs: ‘constructiveness’ and ‘inhabitiveness”’ (McCarley). Owning a home adhered to the idea of personal development, but Fowler also believed that an octagon house was simply more economical. In 1848, Fowler published, “A Home for All: or, A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building.” The unique architecture spurred a wave of interest in the Midwest: 560 historic octagonal homes dating from the 1840s to 1850s were built, and 260 of those were built here in the Midwest (McCarley). This includes Hudson’s historical landmark, the Octagon House Museum.

Octagon Houses in the US

Note the high concentration of octagon homes built in the Northeast and Midwest. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lawin McCarley.

Wisconsinites adhered strongly to Fowler’s ideas of phrenology, therefore, a large number of octagon houses were built within the state. In the Phrenological Journal Fowler even stated of Wisconsin citizens, “They are pioneers in all reforms. They are composed of the most energetic and enterprising of all the older states. Hence their readiness to receive and promulgate phrenological science.” Also in that issue he had mentioned that in 1846 there were 5,000 Wisconsinite subscribers, but in 1849, the number of subscribers jumped to approximately 13,000. Wisconsinites couldn’t get enough of phrenological science.

Here in Hudson, Wisconsin, Fowler’s ideas took shape in 1854 with the Moffat family. The Moffats may have been inspired by Fowler’s book, “A Home for All” as it pushed the idea that octagonal homes had, “functional advantages, as well as economy of space, increased light and easy air flow between rooms” (SCCHS). The Moffats may have also selected this architectural design because they were native New Yorkers, and Fowler operated his business primarily out of Manhattan. Whatever the exact reason, the Octagon House was erected on Third Street, and followed many of the architectural designs that Fowler recommended.

By the 1860’s, the social climate had begun to change. Political and economic issues began to emerge and dominate American culture. Phrenology lost popularity and with it, the iconic design of the octagon house. To see an exemplary and well-maintained example of Fowler’s ideas of phrenology and architecture please visit the Octagon House Museum at 1004 Third Street in Hudson.


Sources:

McCarley, Rebecca Lawin. “Orson S. Fowler and a Home for All: The Octagon House in the Midwest.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 12 (2005): 49-63.

St. Croix County Historical Society. “History of the Octagon House Family.” Compiled by Dorothy Wilson. 1993.

Young, Dwight L. “To Form a More Perfect Human: Orson Squire Fowler.” The Wilson Quarterly 14.2 (1990): 120.

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