Segment from Beach Bodies

Nose Knows Best

Brian chats with Eddy Portnoy about the 19th century pseudo-science of nasology, which claimed to explain personality traits based on the shape of a person’s nose, and the Backstory hosts riff about why we began wanting to change our appearance in the 19th century.

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This transcript comes from an early version of the show. There may be small differences between the audio and transcript.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts. Hey there, welcome. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers–

ED: The 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: 18th Century Guy.

ED: OK, so we decided a while back that we wanted to do a show about bodies, like the physical body. Now it’s summertime, and people are breaking out the swim suits and short sleeves and heading to the beach. And whether we’re flaunting our bodies, or worrying about them, you can bet we all have some idea of what a perfect body “should” look like. And that got us wondering, what did the perfect body look like in the past?

BRIAN: Yeah. To find out, we called Eddy Portnoy.

EDDY PORTNOY: Hi, I’m Eddy Portnoy. I teach Jewish Literature and Yiddish Language at Rutgers University.

BRIAN: And Eddy kind of backed into some research on body image. One of the first things we talked about was how, in the early 1800s, people started thinking that maybe the body wasn’t just a body. Maybe the way they were shaped said something about what kind of person they were.

EDDY PORTNOY: Phrenology is a pseudoscience that was created in the early 19th century, that holds that a person’s character can be determined by reading the bumps on their head.

PETER: Now some of you are probably familiar with phrenology, but just in case, here’s a quick overview. The first to phrenologist is actually a German doctor, Franz Josef Gall. In 1819, he divided the skull into 27 different sections.

EDDY PORTNOY: Kind of an architecture of the human head.

PETER: And by feeling the bumps on each one of these sections, you can learn something about a person’s character.

EDDY PORTNOY: So it could determine something like criminality, or future intelligence, things like that.

ED: And this is not just a fringe science. In 1846, Walt Whitman observed that phrenology had crossed over into the mainstream.

WALT WHITMAN: Breasting the waves of detraction as a ship dashes sea waves, phrenology, it must now be confessed by all men who have opened eyes, has at last gained a position, and a firm one among the sciences.

BRIAN: In the wake of phrenology’s rise as a prominent science, in 1848 a very interesting book is published in London.

EDDY PORTNOY: –by a man by the name of Eden Warwick, which is allegedly the pseudonym of George Jabet. And the book is titled Nasology.

PETER: Nasology?

BRIAN: Yeah, Peter, Nasology.

EDDY PORTNOY: Nasology is a 19th century pseudoscience, which holds that a person’s character can be read via the shape of their nose.

ED: And nasology really maps onto the way people are thinking about the body at the time. It really fits in with phrenology. But Warwick does write about one key difference. While phrenology claims it’s the skull, in other words, the body that determines the character–

EDDY PORTNOY: Nasology completely upends that idea by claiming that it’s in the mind that creates the shape of the nose. If you become more intelligent, your nose will actually change.

ED: So today on BackStory we’re going to talk about that connection between our bodies and our character. Because, throughout American history, we’ve had different ideas of what the perfect body looked like. And we’ve also had different ideas about how to get that perfect body.

PETER: From nose jobs to dieting, to getting a tan, we’re going to look at ourselves very closely this hour. And we’ll try to figure out why and how, over time, Americans have strived for certain physical ideals.

ED: Jumping back to Nasology, when Warwick wrote this book, he broke down on noses into six categories, six different types of noses.

EDDY PORTNOY: Number one is the Roman nose, which is aquiline and convex.

ED: So it’s hooked, like an eagle’s beak.

EDDY PORTNOY: It’s an indicator of great decision, considerable energy, firmness, absence of refinement, and disregard for the bienseance of life.

BRIAN: Wait, bien– bienseance, is that like a hip hop artist?

EDDY PORTNOY: This is a French term that’s thrown in there. It’s sort of the enjoyment of life.

BRIAN: Enjoyment of life, good.

EDDY PORTNOY: The second category is the Greek category. That’s a straight nose. It indicates refinement of character, a love for the Fine Arts, and Belles Lettres, astuteness, craft, and a preference for indirect action. If it’s not obvious, I’m quoting directly from the book. If the Greek nose is slightly distended at the end, it indicates the most useful and intellectual of characters as the highest and most beautiful form which the organ can assume.

BRIAN: What do you think, guys? Does my nose look just a little bit Greek to you?

PETER: Oh, oh, more than a little, Brian. It is Greek, you know.

ED: It’s so distended.

PETER: Your nose has always been Greek to me.

EDDY PORTNOY: The third category is the cogitative, or the wide-nostrilled nose. This indicates a cogitative mind, having strong powers of thought, and given to serious thought and meditation. The fourth category is the Jewish, or hawk nose.

BRIAN: Hey, guys, stop looking at my nose, like that.

PETER: No, It’s Greek, Brian. It’s Greek.

BRIAN: Thank you.

EDDY PORTNOY: And it is very convex. It indicates considerable shrewdness in worldly matter, a deep insight into character, and facility of turning that insight into profitable account. It’s also known as the commercial nose. While named for the Jews, it is not exclusive to them, nor is it confined to them. So it may be that you’re not Jewish, but you happen to have this type of nose.

BRIAN: Right.

EDDY PORTNOY: Which also indicates that you are good at business.

BRIAN: Right.

EDDY PORTNOY: Categories five and six, according to Warwick, are the snub nose, and the celestial nose. And these are indicative of natural weakness, mean, disagreeable dispositions with petty insolence, poverty of character. Celestial has a slightly greater length than the snub, which causes the bearer to have a least a share of fox-like common sense. A snub nose is considered to be proof of the degeneracy of the human race. That is Warwick’s taxonomy.

BRIAN: Let me just ask, this Eden Warwick, how did he intend this? Are you able to discern whether he intended this to be a joke, or intended it to be serious?

EDDY PORTNOY: You know, my feeling is that he intended it to be a kind of satire on phrenology. Sort of a send-up of it, which is somewhat strange, because it’s a 250 page joke, if you look at it that way.

EDEN WARWICK: It is with considerable distaste and reluctance that we approach the latter divisions of our classification. We wish we had never undertaken to write these noses. But after contemplating the powerful Roman nose, or the refined and elegant Greek nose, it must descend to the imbecile inanity of the snub.

BRIAN: Eddy says that when Nasology was first published in London, in 1848, nobody took it very seriously. But four years later, the book was republished again, in England, and it really took off. Because despite the differences, phrenologists adopted it as one of their sciences. The book, in various knockoff versions, made their way to the United States. And over the next 50 years nasology became a very big deal.

EDDY PORTNOY: You have articles in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, in Harper’s Bizarre, in the New York Times, Washington Post– in almost any American newspaper– you’ll find some article, at some point during the late 19th century, on this topic.

BRIAN: And these were serious articles. These were not tongue-in-cheek. Nasology, somehow, had made it into the mainstream of, as a subset of phrenology?


BRIAN: Is that the right way to put it?

EDDY PORTNOY: Yeah, basically. For the most part, it’s taken seriously. And what’s interesting about it is, the way in which it influenced real medicine and real doctors. The first doctor known to have performed a rhinoplasty in the United States is a man by the name of John Roe.

And he wrote an article in, I believe, 1887, in a medical journal describing what he had done. And he had performed an operation on a pug nose, or a snub nose, that– according to Warwick– it’s the least desirable kind of nose. And Roe, in his article, cites a Warwick’s taxonomy of noses, all of these different classes, the Roman, the Greek, the Jewish.

BRIAN: What do you think was going on in the culture, or in the politics of the time, if you will, that helped turn a book that probably was intended as a satire of the pseudoscience of phrenology, into, well, kind of a growth industry?

EDDY PORTNOY: Well, I think there are other variety of factors here. In the popular press, racial caricatures were very common. So throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, in magazines and newspapers, you can find caricatures of all kinds of different racial and national types. And the nature of caricature is to distort reality. But nonetheless, retain a semblance of what the person realistically looks like.

So a caricature of a Jew, for example, would often have an absolutely enormous nose. A caricature of an Irish person would have this snub nose. And for people who had something that looked similar to these noses, it was, undoubtedly, irritating to have to see it. I mean, it’s not something that exists in our popular culture anymore.

BRIAN: Right.

EDDY PORTNOY: But, you know, 150, 100 years ago, it was something that was very common.

BRIAN: Eddy Portnoy is a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

ED: You know, what’s interesting, Brian, is that an idea that begins in the 1840s, that your nose will be shaped by your character, by the 1880s they have a different idea– that your nose will be shaped by surgery. And it’s very much a modern idea. Why wait for your character to shape your nose, when a doctor can do it for you?

PETER: And I think, too, it’s easy to laugh at all the stuff. And we have been laughing. It’s funny. But I think what seems like pseudoscience– Eddy called in pseudoscience, nasology and phrenology– it’s all, I think, an understandable effort to use, well, scientific method and a scientific language to try to delve the depths of what we call now, psychology. It’s important information to have. How are you going to figure out who’s up to what?

I mean, Ed, this is the great century of the confidence man, a real anxiety about getting beneath surface. And so one way to get beneath surface is to insist that surface actually tells you about something that’s below. It’s at least, a screening device, or you might it’s a form of profiling.

ED: And in many ways, we’re not so far from it today. In many ways, we’ve gone back to a fixation on the body as a marker of character with our fixation on fitness. So you’ll know what kind of person a person is by whether or not they’ve taken care of their bodies or not, what foods they put into it, how much they exercise.

So we kind of sneer at this kind of idea, but we also, now, take it for granted that the way you treat your body tells you about what kind of person’s inside.