A sketch of the face of a man with a long nose and protuding jaw baring his teeth.

How To…Read Personal Character

By Michael Sappol

Human Faces, What They Mean! How to Read Personal Character, 1872

If you live in the 19th century, as I do, and want to know how to read people like a book, then read this book. Which is on “Physiognomy”— “the art, or science, by which the characteristics of the mind are discovered in the general configuration of the body, and particularly in the features of the face.”

You will first encounter “Forms of the Human Body”, the “Abdominal Form”, “Muscular or Fibrous Form”, “Thoracic Form”, “Osseous or Bony Form”, “Brain and Nerve Form”, and go through the major organs of the body, the color and texture of the body, the healthiness of the body and the relative “activity of the mind.” Don’t worry if you’re confused, there are lots of illustrations to show what the author is talking about.

You will then take a tour of emotional and intellectual dispositions, which the author terms “powers” and “abilities”, exemplified by portraits of people, but also some animals, using categories gleaned from an allied and overlapping field of study: the science of phrenology. It’s all a bit technical, and you may have trouble following me, but here’s a sample. There are “Supplyant Powers,” which include “contentment or acquiesciveness”, “animal imitation or animalimitationality”, “love of liquids, or aquasorbitiveness”, “physical hope or physioelpidicity”, “rapacity or graspativeness”, “appetite for food or appetitiveness”, “revengefulness or retaliativeness” (why not “retaliativity”?). There are “Protective Abilities,” which are “an ascendancy of the thoracic form”, and which include “desire to be sentinelled or sentinelativeness”, “moral courage or morivalorosity” (how morivalorous!), “tendency for elevation of mind or body, or elevativeness”, “sense of smell or olfactiveness” (these types tend to have large noses). I could go through more categories and subcategories, but you get the idea…

I guarantee that you will learn a lot. Dr Simms provides many examples of the curious variations to which humans are prey—tall/short, fat/thin, smart/stupid, savage/civilized, and so on. You will learn about well-known figures from history and the present day (1880s), and named and unnamed people drawn from phrenology and ethnology, which is the study of races, especially non-European races. For some reason, Dr Simms generally finds that these non-European races do not exhibit morally beneficial or appealing traits. Try not to be like them!

People are hard to read, it’s tough going, and you have to know how. Dr Simms, a “renowned and eloquent lecturer” who has lectured all across America for more than 30 years, is an expert who has studied this subject seriously and really knows his stuff. As an added bonus, in the back of the book, Dr Simms provides blank forms which you can fill in to evaluate people you meet, along with a long list of “professions, trades, occupations, and callings,” so that you have standardized categories when you fill in the blanks. That makes things easier. Finally—and this is a real help—there is a section entitled “Choice of a Companion for Life” which lists all of the good qualities you may want to find in a mate. As is obvious from all of the above, this book is morally instructive and answers a lot of questions. But if you’re feeling a bit sentinelative and want to go further, you may seek to consult a longer, more technical work, Mary O. Stanton’s How to Read Faces; or Practical and Scientific Physiognomy, published by the same (dare I say it, elevative) publisher. That will set you back $2, a day’s wages or so, depending on your calling.


An engraved portrait of T. GloverT. Glover, a dry goods merchant of Quebec, is 52 years of age, has crossed the Atlantic Ocean upwards of 70 times, never taken five shillings worth of medicine, and never lost a day’s work by sickness.

[Disclosure: This blog post is facetious and ironic, and really by someone who lives in the 21st century, Michael Sappol, a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, who has only crossed the Atlantic Ocean 20 times or so, and has lost lots of days’ work by sickness. Sappol does not endorse the opinions or advice of Dr Simms. He wants to add that, although phrenology and physiognomy were taken quite seriously as sciences of character and mind earlier in the 19th century (and a residue of their doctrines was carried over into late 19th-century fine art, and academic psychology and anthropology), by the late 1880s works such as this were generally dismissed by the well- educated. Even so, phrenology and physiognomy continued to be popular among working-and lower-middle-class people who aspired to be better educated. Strangely, works on the subject were usually printed in small type and to be understood required a fairly high degree of literacy and knowledge of history and the world.  At the same time, phrenology and physiognomy contributed to their readers’ stock of knowledge by giving faces to historical names and exotic peoples, and providing brief references to historical events, anatomy and geography. Of course, we should neither overlook nor forget that phrenology and physiognomy also contributed to racial, cultural and social stereotypes and biases against native peoples, people of color, and individuals who were challenged physically and mentally.]

Title page including two portraits and stating "This book is Illustrated by upwards of 200 Engravings."Joseph Simms, MD, Human Faces, What They Mean! How to Read Personal Character (London, 1872; reprint New York: Murray Hill Publishing Company, 1887); “illustrated by upwards of 200 engravings and…several hundred signs of character, forming an original system….”

Read other How To… features from the NLM Collections here.

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

One comment

  1. Amazing Drawing. It is amazing what a person’s facial features are thought to reveal about their personality. A curved forehead, for example, indicates creativity, while wide eyes denote a sensitive person, and large cheeks mean the person is energetic.keep posting.

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