A small paper booklet held in the Museum’s archives offers an intriguing look into how some people once attempted to learn more about themselves. The title of the booklet is a mouthful: Physiognomical Chart of Character, with Illustrations of Temperaments, Facial Angles and Types of Faces, and Definitions of Mental Faculties, Together with the Explanation of Their Facial Indications. In short, the booklet covers the basics of physiognomy.
Physiognomy refers to the once popular practice of assessing someone’s personality based on their outward appearance. It was believed that a person’s inner character was revealed through their physical traits and could be read by deciphering the size, shape and placement of facial features on the head. Today it is known as pseudoscience and generally regarded as just a bit of fun.
Face-reading was an everyday practice in Ancient Greece and was common through to the middle ages, even earning a mention in an addition to The Canterbury Tales when a character is called out as a thief with the line, “I knowe wele by thy fisnamy, thy kynd it were to stele”.
It was dismissed by Leonardo da Vinci as having no scientific foundation, although he did believe the lines and creases on a person’s face could indicate their character, but it continued to be taught at English universities until King Henry VIII outlawed it as a vagabond’s crafty game.
Physiognomy began to increase in popularity again from the 17th century and peaked 200 years later, becoming a common subject in novels and artworks of the time. With doctors and philosophers giving it their professional backing, the police even used it to profile the appearance of criminals and warned officers to be aware of people with pointed heads, heavy jaws, receding brows and scant beards, as they were more likely to commit crimes.
New Zealand was not left out of this fad and several physiognomists journeyed here to offer lectures and consultations, including Oswald E Hugo who visited Whanganui in November 1882. His talks were attended by small but enthusiastic crowds. Frederick Hanson Allen was one attendee, aged 18 at the time, and he received the booklet which contains the hand-written results of his consultation with Hugo.
Fred received a low 4/10 for “memory of dates” but a high 8/10 for “memory of events”. He scored an average 6/10 for “love of life” but the high score of 8.5/10 for “sensual proclivities” came with a recommendation for restraint.
Fred was warned to “not give any thought to the other sex for several years to come”, but Hugo listed the set of features he should look for in a future bride which would indicate she had the right personality to balance his own. “ … dark hair and eyes with arched eyebrows and concave lashes, forehead full in the middle, nose straight or short, face short and broad, slim figure and rather tall, conical head”.
Fred took Hugo’s advice to wait, and was 29 when he married Ethel Elizabeth Barns in 1894, although we don’t know what she looked like.
Physiognomy fell out of favour by the early 20th century as science and technology advanced, although some programmers use physiognomical analysis in developing facial recognition software today.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.