Thursday, September 29, 2011

Countdown to The Agricultural Fair!!

Only 2 days left to go until the Agricultural Fair!
Our word for the day is bracing. Bracing means brisk "I put on my hood against the bracing cold."

One of the tents at the Agricultural Fair will feature Phrenology. Phrenology is a "scientiffic" way to tell someone's character. The idea is that the brain is an organ of the mind, and the skull takes the shape of the brain. Therefore, by measuring the skull, and noting any irregularities of it, such as bumps, one could theoretically know a person's "mind". It was thought that a "reading" of the skull would indicate the clients character, emotions, and thoughts.

Two of the most celebrated American practitioners of Phrenology were the Fowler brothers, Lorenzo and Orson. They were born in Cohocton, a small town about an hour and fifteen minutes south of the Museum. Orson published a book on the subject, Phrenology, Proved, Illustrated, and Applied, after graduating from Amhurst College in 1836. Lorenzo studied in England and became the originator of a Phrenological publishing house, L.N. Fowler and Co., and developed a "Phrenological Head" or bust which detailed the various zones on the head and their relation to a person's character. They practiced the science into the 50s and gave readings to such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, President Garfield, Mark Twain, and  John Brown, and Brigham Young, the Mormon leader.

Visitors to the Agricultural Fair will be able to learn to give readings and have a chance to experiment while using an original Fowler Head.

Now, the Genesee Country Village and Museum has a deeper connection to the Fowlers and Phrenology than might be first thought. Orson had a wide interest in what we might call self-help today. He was a proponent of Women's Rights, Children's Labor rights, Hydropathy, Mesmerism, improvements in Farming and Industry, and an advocate for marriage counseling, sex education, and also......Octagon Houses! 

By 1848 Fowler had expanded into the realm of architecture as he branched out into new areas. In that year he published a book entitled: The Octagonal House: A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building. An octagonal house, he would always point out, could have its plans adapted for small or large houses, and thus the basic plan could serve both the rich and the poor. Moreover, he had discovered a new, inexpensive technique for house construction which used gravel, lime, and sand to create concrete which could be poured into molds for the exterior walls of a house, and this technique he used in Fishkill, New York, in building his own large mansion.

Not only was an octagonal structure more healthy, Fowler claimed, but it was less expensive to build. He pointed out that an octagonal house enclosed one-fifth more space than a square house plan and one-third more space than a rectangular house plan of equal perimeter, and he proved this through the drawings and the house dimensions given in his book. Moreover, an octagonal house would use less heat in the winter, and it would allow more light into rooms since with its eight sides there could be more windows. It wasted less space on hallways since all rooms radiated from one central hall. A spiral staircase in the center of the house would provide for the circulation of fresh air in the summer and heated air in the winter. Not only would it be less costly to build and more healthy to live in, but it would be more convenient for its denizens than a standard house plan.

Some 2,077 octagonal house still stand today, the most noted of which are now museums. One such unit is our own Hyde House, built in 1870 by Erastus Hyde and his wife Julia in Friendship, New York. He was a homeopathic physician and herbalist while she was a Methodist minister. They had become involved in the then popular Spiritualist Movement which began not too far from Rochester, Their wooden, octagonal house, by virtue of its plan, was perfect for spiritualist séances—since it had no deep corners which could harbor evil spirits during their séances with the spirits of the dead. Naturally, in time the house came to be considered haunted. The building was dismantled into 6,000 numbered pieces in order to move it to the Genesee Country Village Museum where it has been carefully restored and furnished in the proper Victorian fashion of its day. Legend claims that the workmen involved in the restoration of the building were bothered by the fact that their tools moved of their own accord into different places from which they had been left, and the Museum Director's dog always refused to go into the building when its master entered it. Nonetheless, it is a most popular building in the Museum Village today, despite the overtones of its haunted nature.

At the time of this Post, we know of existing Octagon houses in Alfred, Binghamton, Olean, Chautaqua, Freedonia, and a study built by Mark Twain's sister in Elmira.

And there you have it: the connection between Phrenology and the Octagon house! See both this weekend at the Agricultural Fair!

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