The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


The Nose Knows

As the old adage goes, never judge a book by its cover. But what about judging people…by the shape of their nose? That is

An image from Vaught's Practical Character Reader, published in 1902. Credit: Public Domain Review.

An image from Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, published in 1902. Credit: Public Domain Review.

precisely what “nasology” sought to accomplish. This 19th century pseudoscience proposed a link between an individual’s moral character and the physical contours of their nose. In other words, a nasologist could determine levels of intelligence, industry or criminality, among other things, through a simple nasal examination. It may sound absurd today, but nasology, like phrenology (which believed character could be seen in the shape of an individual’s skull) had a real influence on the medical practices and cultural values of 19th century America.

Eddy Portnoy, a professor of Jewish Literature and Yiddish Language at Rutgers University, explained the origins of this strange and fascinating pseudoscience, including the possibility that it may have started as a joke.


Nasology, the 1848 book that started it all:


“[Nasology was written] by a man by the name of Eden Warwick, which is allegedly the pseudonym of George Jabet. [Nasology] holds that a person’s character can be read via the shape of their nose. If you become more intelligent, your nose will actually change.”


Warwick’s six “categories” of noses:


“Number one is the Roman nose, which is aquiline and convex. It’s an indicator of great decision, considerable energy, firmness, absence of refinement, and disregard for the bienseance of life. [Bienseance] is a French term that’s thrown in there. It’s sort of the enjoyment of life.


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.


The third category is the cogitative, or the wide-nostriled 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. 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. Which also indicates that you are good at business.


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.”


Nasology and race:


“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.”


Nasology gains influence, but may have started as a joke?


“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.


You have articles in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, in Harper’s Bazaar 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. 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.”


This segment comes from Beach Bodies, our episode on the changing ideas about the American physique.