Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Encyclopædia of Face and Form Reading

Mary Olmstead Stanton - The Encyclopædia of Face and Form Reading (1889)

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When starting this blog I expected to include more crank/kook works but they've been sparse in the digital library (though the rest of the digital world is overrun with them).  My suspicion is that digitized books are drawn from libraries who tended to either not collect this material or to have purged it over the years.  And there might not just been too many printed during this public-domain time.  Sure, there's a fair amount of spiritualist and Theosophical material but that seems quaint today if not outright dreary and hardly worth the trouble.

The Encyclopædia of Face and Form Reading is full-blown kook territory, maybe not as amusing as elaborate Illuminati conspiracies or cryptozoological fantasies but it has all the marks of somebody gripped in an obsession.  For one thing it's 1200 pages of dense, small type.  Stanton is certain about physiognomy, the idea that a person's outside appearance indicates their character and has created an elaborate, detailed system to present her conception.  It's minutely detailed, categorized and sub-categorized - if nothing else the structural presentation is quite impressive and I'll have to admit that Stanton was a fairly sturdy and clear prose stylist.  Still, the overall effect is bizarre.  A contemporary review of one of Stanton's earlier books in The Atlantic Monthly (1883, p719) said "No one who had not previously seen a human face would be likely to recognize it in the extraordinary collection of faces which illustrate this volume. Indeed, the general analysis of the human being leaves one a little in doubt whether he ever saw a man or woman."

Some excerpts:

"A high cultivation of the color-sense is a religious duty, and all parents should see that their children are instructed in this direction. The lives of thousands are dependent upon knowledge of colors, as in comprehending the signals by colored lights at sea and on railways. Boys, particularly, should be instructed in chromatics, as many of them will follow professions which necessitate the knowledge of colors." (p412)

"A round dimple in the chin denotes art-loving tastes, for the reason that a round dimple is caused by a combination of the round muscle with the round bone, and this combination is the one best adapted to assist every species of art-work, except sculpture. The latter requires square bones and round muscles for its best illustration." (p777)

"I believe that the squareness of his [Beethoven's] bony system, which is well defined in his forehead and shoulders, had a great influence upon his conduct, causing it to be square and honest." (p678)

"A comedian of the first rank must possess high artistic qualities and a many-sided nature. He must be adaptable and keenly apprehensive. He requires a very sensitive brain and a nervous system of fine quality, together with a large endowment and fine degree of muscle, an excellent thoracic development, and a good share of the vegetative system, to give power to the domestic and social sentiments and to afford nutrition essential to his arduous labors." (p1130)

It's easy enough to mock this today though many if not most people still think some milder variation is true - how often do you hear somebody explain what body language means or how certain facial movements indicate that somebody is lying, even though clearly if these have any truth at all it's very narrow and contingent.  Stanton apparently has no doubts whatsoever but it's hard not to wonder.  Reading that first excerpt (and she goes on about color for a few more pages) makes it seem like people had some widespread color-viewing deficiency.  Elsewhere she makes definite statements about things she can't possibly know - Julius Caesar's thoracic capacity for instance.  And her standards would appear to exclude most of us from the highest quality,  (Physiognomy is easily racist and though I'm certain there must be examples in this book Stanton seems to have not bothered.)

I've found little information about Stanton.  She was a member of the Pacific Coast Woman's Press Association and even briefly its treasurer.  She lived at Monterey Bay, California and her husband apparently was A.P. Stanton, business manager of the San Francisco newspaper Argonaut.