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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scientific Matchmaking in 1870

These days I can't watch television without being accosted by a barrage of commercials offering to help me find a date. Never mind the fact that I have been very happily married for 32 years; they don't know or don't care and I suspect that if I'd pay the fee, they'd take it. One of the most heavily marketed dating services is eHarmony, an outfit whose pitch is the excellent results they've accomplished through the use of an extensive profile about your likes, dislikes, interests, and character traits. Each hopeful applicant fills out the profile survey and the computer does the rest, matching up profile answers to find the ideal date or mate. Not real romantic, but probably safer than bars and clubs.

As long as there have been men and women on this planet, there have been love-sick puppies looking for a kindred spirit (that is, everyone since Adam and Eve; they had a matchmaker who conveniently arranged to have the two meet in the same garden). In 1870, a doctor named John Cowan wrote a book that shared his infallible matchmaking system. Titled The Science of New Life, it was essentially a Victorian manual about the facts of life. I paid a lot more than Cowan's original asking price for his book, so I'm guessing that he wouldn't mind me sharing a few of his interesting thoughts on matchmaking with you:
"Taking it for granted that the man has arrived at a marriageable age - twenty-eight or thirty - and that he be of sound mind and perfect health ... he should avoid ... any woman having ill health, and especially if she be of a family having consumption or scrofula in its organization. There is no more important peculiarity to avoid than this one of inherent or transmitted sickness."
He then (wisely) recommends avoiding hysterical or lazy women, as well as those that wear corsets ("avoid them as you would the plagues of Egypt, for they encompass sickness, premature decay and death"), small women (unless you're a small man), ignorant or poorly educated women (those that have learned to speak foreign languages, sing operas or play piano), those with "a superficially beautiful face," or women who are "overloaded with outre-shaped ear-rings, bracelets, finger-rings, and other cheap, gilt trinkets," false hair, and extravagant dress with false forms (bustles, hoops, etc.). So how's a guy supposed to see past all the superficial beauty, sexiness, and class (assuming he wants to, that is)? Cowan's answer: Phrenology - the determination of human attributes by measuring the size, shape, and features of the head.
Each area of the skull was home to a certain character trait which a phrenologist could supposedly measure to be in deficit or abundance. The more your phrenological profile matched a prospective mate's, the better the match. The attached phrenological bust graphically maps out these character zones (the illustration comes from an 1862 treatise on consumption and lung diseases by another doctor, Charles R. Broadbent of Boston, who also couldn't praise phrenology enough). The ridge in front of the ear (the zygomatic arch), for example (where two men can be seen drinking liquor and eating what look like ridiculously large meatballs), was the zone of "Alimantativeness - appetite, desire of nutrition, sense of hunger, and capacity to enjoy food and drink." The more that boney ridge sticks out, the more desire that person will have to eat and drink. Funny, I've been looking at the bulge of my stomach to measure that. Guess I'm no scientist. Some called phrenology quackery, but others, like Doctors Broadbent and Cowan, insisted it was science. Cowan continued with his prescription for finding the ideal spouse:
"Go to a good phrenologist and obtain a written analysis of your character, with a fully marked chart, which retain for comparison. When you , in your search for a wife, come across a woman who you think has an appearance of approximating your standard of character, have her secure a chart ... and show it to you, when, having all her perfections and defects in print, you can compare it with yours. ... If the comparison is favorable to a perfect union, then an engagement may be formed, and until this precise point is arrived at, love, impulse and the feelings should not be exercised, but kept perfectly dormant. ... if you allow your feelings and impulses to run rampant, instead of choosing and marrying a woman suited to your characteristics, you will probably choose and marry a ringlet, a dimple, a set of white teeth, a silky eyelash, a peach-blossom cheek; a lithe and willowy waist, a glimpse of a pretty ankle, a chance touch of tender taper fingers, the lingering echo of a winsome laugh ... or any of numberless beautiful things ..."
The way I see it, the matchmaking methodology of eHarmony and Dr. Cowan is very much the same - measure and compare a couple's character traits to find the match; don't rely on impulse, sudden attraction, or "love at first sight." It's just hard to get us hornytoad humans to listen to common sense. I mean, my wife is a perfect match for me and I love her mind, heart, and soul, but mm-mmm, those pretty ankles ...


  1. Thanks for sharing this; this is in fact a great reading. We have few online readers who will like to read this stuff. We will pass it on to our valuable readers for more feedback. Thanks and please post us and leave a comment back and well link to you. Thanking you. matchmaking

  2. Errr ... thanks, I think. I'm hoping you meant, "We have A few on line readers who will like to read this stuff," as opposed to "We have few online readers who will like to read this stuff." I have a big bump on the ego zone of my skull and it gets bruised pretty easily! Whether one or many, welcome to Matchmaking readers!


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