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Wells, Samuel Robertslocked

(04 April 1820–13 April 1875)
  • Madeleine B. Stern

Wells, Samuel Roberts (04 April 1820–13 April 1875), publisher, was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Russell Wells, a farmer (mother’s name unknown). Shortly after his birth the family moved to a farm near Little Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario in Wayne County, New York. Samuel was apprenticed to a tanner and currier, but, planning to study medicine at Yale, he pursued some preliminary work by reading medical texts.

On a visit to Boston in 1843, Wells attended lectures on phrenology by Orson Fowler and Lorenzo Fowler, and, convinced by the phrenological doctrine that the conformation of the skull indicated the nature and size of the mental faculties or characteristics, he determined to become a phrenologist. Phrenology was accepted during the early and mid-nineteenth century by some scientists who saw in it a reliable index to the workings of the mind, but, with the progress of exact science, phrenology was dismissed as a borderline pseudoscience. Wells, believing that phrenological examinations would help subjects know and improve themselves, abandoned his medical plans and the same year joined the Fowlers in their phrenological establishment in Clinton Hall, New York City. The following year he married Charlotte Fowler, sister of Orson and Lorenzo (no children were born of the marriage), and shortly thereafter became a member of the firm, restyled Fowlers and Wells.

Wells specialized in the publishing arm of the business. His list included phrenological handbooks by the Fowler brothers, a series of phrenological almanacs, and manuals on related reforms—vegetarianism, temperance, and water cure. Under Wells’s aegis the publishing department of Fowlers and Wells claimed in time to have the largest mail-order list in New York with a market extending “from Nova Scotia to New Mexico, including the Canadas, and all the Territories on the American continent.”

Despite some reluctance on Wells’s part, Fowlers and Wells in 1855 advertised and placed on sale the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The following year the firm actually—albeit anonymously (that is, without citing the firm name on the title page)—published the second, expanded edition. At the same time, Whitman was employed by Fowlers and Wells as staff writer for their periodical, Life Illustrated.

With Orson Fowler’s withdrawal, the firm was renamed Fowler and Wells. In 1854 it moved to 308 Broadway, New York City, and the publishing list under Wells’s supervision was expanded with practical manuals on home- and self-improvement: How to Write, How to Talk, How to Behave, How to Do Business (all circa 1850; each went through several editions), some compiled by Wells himself. Books on physical health, sex education, and psychology as then understood (akin to magnetism and mesmerism) were strong features of a list that also offered works on social reform by such progressive thinkers as Albert Brisbane, Parke Godwin, Robert Dale Owen, and Horace Greeley.

While Wells directed the publishing division, his wife Charlotte supervised the business affairs of the office. She also encouraged publication of feminist books. Partly at her urging, the writings of Margaret Fuller were posthumously reprinted, and books on the nature and abilities of women by M. Edgeworth Lazarus, Marion Kirkland Reid, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Elizabeth Oakes Smith were added to the firm’s list.

Between 1858 and 1860 Wells accompanied Lorenzo and Lydia Fowler on an extensive lecture tour through the United States and Canada. Between 1860 and 1862 they journeyed to England, lecturing and performing phrenological examinations, and by 1863 Lorenzo Fowler had established a branch office in London, where he took up residence with his family.

In August 1862 Wells became sole proprietor of the New York office. The firm, now simply S. R. Wells, moved to 389 Broadway, offering an exhibition hall for phrenological busts, casts, and skulls; a lecture room; and an examination room where Nelson Sizer now performed most of the phrenological examinations. The firm’s analyses, many of which were based not on actual heads but on photographs, were published in the long-lived Phrenological Journal (1838–1911), now under Wells’s editorship.

As publisher, Wells aimed at a mass audience. When offered a manuscript, he said, he considered two questions: Will it be useful? And can I afford it? He wrote of his profession: “To be a successful book-publisher one requires a rare combination of qualifications. A spirit of enterprise, tact, discrimination, a knowledge of human nature, a careful and continual study of the public tastes and wants, and a general knowledge of modern literature, are indispensable… . The publisher, who is generally also a seller of books, should have a thorough knowledge of the wares in which he deals” (Wells, How to Do Business, p. 87).

Wells, whose writings included The Right Word in the Right Place (1860), New Physiognomy; or, Signs of Character (1866), Wedlock; or, The Right Relations of the Sexes (1869), and How to Read Character (1868), continued to expand his publishing list with works on health reform, temperance and hydropathy, how-to manuals, “People’s Editions” of English literary highlights, and the periodical The Science of Health (1872–1876).

In 1866 the American Institute of Phrenology was incorporated by the firm to offer courses on the so-called science of mind. The same year Wells, with a group of congressmen, joined the Union Pacific Railway excursion to the West. In 1870 he visited Salt Lake City, where he performed phrenological examinations, and in 1873, with his wife and a group of editors, he toured the Pacific Coast.

The panic of 1873 seriously affected Wells’s business, which, in March 1875 moved to 737 Broadway, New York City. Shortly thereafter Wells succumbed to pneumonia and died in New York City. His widow announced that she would continue the concern and that the firm name would be changed to S. R. Wells and Company. Restyled Fowler and Wells with the brief re-entry of Orson Fowler, the business struggled against diminishing public interest in phrenological doctrine.

By the early twentieth century, when the firm no longer existed, Samuel Wells, whose achievement lay less in his phrenological insights than in his ability to sell phrenological publications to the public, was forgotten. Nonetheless, he had published books not only in the firm’s specialty, but in a wide field of more or less related subjects, ranging from physiognomy and hydropathy to feminism and the relations of the sexes, from temperance to health, from business to etiquette, from literature and language to life in the West. Many of his publications reached a broad readership to whom they carried a doctrine that was optimistic, progressive, and affirmative.


The Fowler Family Papers (including Wells’s papers) are in the Collection of Regional History in Cornell University Library. Details of Wells’s life and career are recorded in John D. Davies, Phrenology—Fad and Science: A 19th-Century American Crusade (1955), and in Madeleine B. Stern, Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers (1971). See also the unattributed article “Fifty Years of Phrenology: A Review of Our Past and Our Work,” Phrenological Journal 80 (Jan. 1885): 10–29. Obituaries are in the New-York Daily Tribune, 14 Apr. 1875; the Phrenological Journal, June 1875, and the Science of Health, June 1875.