Physiognotracing by way of a Cutting Instrument, from an ad in the Poughkeepsie Journal

Physiognomy 302:  Hudson Valley Physiognotracers

Be your descendency of Native American, Dutch, French, English, or Spanish, Italian or Austrian Roman Catholic, Huguenot Protestant or Slavic Moravian, a Scottish Agnosticist or Welch Swedenborgian form, your physiognomy revealed much about the hidden truths behind who you are, your association with your current relatives and your family’s distant past.    The fact that we so closely resemble our parents, and especially our grandparents and great great grandparents, quite often told us and others that we were going to grow up and become just like them.  There were some features we had the will to control, such as whether our name would appear in the newspapers as a horse thief, or as a land owner trying to get rid of some extra property.  When two people were in the same family, even living under the same parentage, one had to wonder why the first three sons so strongly resembled their father, but the fourth son looked more like the handyman residing just down the road.  The first most reason we could jump to was obvious.  It took more intelligence to come up with a reason that pertained to the personality of that kid growing up, claiming that he was unlike his brothers in appearances due to some family traits he was lacking.  This was the easy way to get around making all those accusations and creating the turmoil that such small towns did not need due to their fairly young history. 

The physiognotracer neutralized a lot of the culture that separated social groups and clans in some of these early rural settings.   As a artist practicing his craft as a public display, he had the opportunity to be theatrical, or to be respectful and courteous, and in some cases even allow for some privacy to control the tracing studio scene as he produced his own version of what would soon be your official profile for everyone to see.   Between 1775 and 1780, as the practice and application of the physionomotracing skills became popular in France, none of this level of seriousness existed with this art.  Its founder, a musician, invented it as an aside to his major trade.  So the purpsoe of this creation was more than likely to provide the artisan himself with a break from his primary labors, a change in the use of senses and motor skills for a while in between complex instrument playing and periods of having to compose these lengthy music pieces he was developing.


As the news of this new skill in artistry gained public awareness outside of France, the stage was set for a major change in how this craft would be viewed and interpreted by another culture.   During the 1790s, a number of political and economic interactions occured between the newly established United States and France.  This relationship seem to quiver from time to time between periods of political and economic support when it came to trade, and periods of disagreement regarding the ongoing commerce issues that tended to prevail during these varying war and peace years.  At any point in time during these decades, there were ongoing battles, almost wars, taking place throughout much of Europe and Russia.   Anytime there was a major war during this period of global history, that single war, as we like to think of it, often had long periods of increasing and decreasing tensions between countries soon to become future enemies of one another.  This public and political unrest had some consequences on each of the mother countries.  For France, these social and political problems led to the loss of important knowledge by the French communities.   

In fact, the French already had such a history of allowing such things as politics and popular attitudes get in the way of the country’s intellectual development.  This had already taken place earlier when the French drove out its most important highly intellectual culture, the Huguenots.  Now it was time for the French to once again drive out some of the most important scientists for the time between 1790 and 1800.  The French Revolution and guillotine led to the migration of more than 100,000 from 1789 to 1799.  The Napoleanic Wars that took place from 1792 to 1814 only fed further into this rapid migration of the intelligencia.   As French aristocrats and scholars made their way to the United States, not only did the urban setting benefit.  The growing suburbia of the Hudson Valley also took part in this cultural trade, with French teachers, artists, writers, musicians and even dance instructors making their way into the large towns of Troy, Hudson and Poughkeepsie.

A number of the topics I cover at this site are included due to this aspect of French history.  

Physiognotracing by means of tracings and yarnwork or threadwork sewing (crochet?)

Like any discovery that becomes popular in a new region, local skills take over and new versions of the original methods are developed.  The growth of physiognogracing in Europe was most popular just before and after the French Revolution of the 1780s, with signs that it had reached its peak twice during this time.  With progress still being made in this profession as late as 1830, there was room for more individuals to take on this skill, but for whatever reasons, physiognotracing remained more a fad than an economically stable form of craftsmanship with generation and generation of followers. 

The varying and seemingly fading popularity of physionotracing in France experienced a different growth in the United States.  As  fewer and fewer physiognotracers became popular in the Parisian artisan circles, more people took on and reinvented this profession between 1800 and 1815.   Only one or two were successful enough to appear in much of the advertising for the time, and in the writings later produced about this unique art and its skills. 


In just a few years, American entrepreneurs made  turned this craft into a multi-faceted profession with several avenues to partake in.  During this time, it comes as no surprise that the jack-of-all-trade physician and congressman Samuel Mitchell had his involvement with this professional, although very much superficially.  Mitchell was very much in charge of the establishment and growth of many of the commercial industries in the United States, including their formation, development, licensure and federal management processes.   The tracing tools used by physiognotracers were inventions according to federal regulations, for which patents could be granted and so posted.  Mitchell was on the governmental team of officials overseeing this role that government partook in the local American businesses and industries. 

But back in the United States, several inventions were made between 1802 and 1815 enabling this profession to grow in popularity locally.  Unlike the early French methods heavily popularized, the Hudson Valley artisans had a unique way of interpreting and expressing their skills.  Some ofthese artisnas became sewers, others became experts in the megalithic approach to this craft, still others took the angle of applying this skill as an everyday crafting technique, with final products available for a fairly low cost.  Thus the following printing of an article on inventions in the

The US Patents provide a little more insight into the history of this profession.

The Two American Inventors.  From List of patents for inventions and designs: issued by the United States, from 1790 to 1847 … By United States. Patent Office. P.326.  Arts, Polite, Fine and Ornamental.

Isaac Tood, Augustus Day and William Bache, June 15, 1803




On May 4, 1805, another invention was patented and years later posted in the Medical Repository, edited by Samuel Mitchell.  Its inventor was Daniel Atherton or Richmond, Virginia (see p. 149 in A. J. Morrison.  Virginia Patents.   William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, 2nd Ser., Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1922), pp. 149-156, http://files.usgwarchives.net/va/schools/wmmary/patents2.txt).



Peter Pallet of Hudson, NY

Peter Pallet provides us with one of the most descriptive discussions of his character and role socially as a physiognotracer.  He was unique for his time, being that he had turned this unofficial form of art into a life endeavor.  Physiognotracing enabled him to transform from that typical painter hired to touch up corners and surfaces of a home or shed, into someone with a somewhat more enjoyable profession, a game-like enterprise for those most devoted to performing such skills.  Throughout the social setting, in the books and in the dictionaries for the time, physiognotracing was likened to the skills of the limner.  The limner of a century earlier was the traditional monk seated alongside his desk trying to salvage what little was left of an earlier produced vellum-covered manuscript now almost totally devoid of color due to aging dyes and inks.  By the 1800s, this limner had become the skills craftsman and illustrator of the pseudoscience of arts now developing.  Like the local glassblower producing sculptings of one’s head or face, or the glazier chiseling marks into a piece of glassware, all to illustrate your likeness to yourself and others, the limner like Peter Pallet was someone who was meant to fill in that space that neither a painter nor sculptor sould fill.  In the modern neuropyschological sense, Pallet satisfied the left side of your mind whilst luring in your right-sided ways of thinking as well.  This was very gratifying to both the husband and wife of a newly wed couple, or the boys and girls that were their first or second generation descendants. For these reasons, works such as these were very appealing for the time, and often too candid and overly revealing.  To  others in the family viewing your portrait, you may pull the covers over your face each night when you try to go to sleep, and wake up each morning not fully refreshed until you can put on your daily make-up, mustache wax or hair grease.   The influences of all of these masking agents are revealed once your portrait is seen. 





HUDSON, (new-York) TUESDAY, October 2, 1804.


Hither the products of your closet-labors bring, Enrich our columns, and instruct mankind.



Mr. Editor,


I AM, by profession, a Painter. I am a self-taught artist. On this account I claim the peculiar favor of the public. Nor am I the only person that has done the fame thing. No man can offer a higher recommendation at this day. Nor is it confined to painting alone. A natural genius,—a sell-taught divine, physician, or lawyer, is sure to meet with better success in the world, that those who acquire an act or profession by study and instruction. With much satisfaction, then, I declare, I took up the painting business “of my own head ;” and after advancing regularly through all the grades of the art, I have at length become a most perfect Limner. I paint full length portraits, bulls, or heads, in oil, water colours or crayons ; miniatures, exquisitely beautiful ; and no physiognotrace in the country can beat me at a profile ; but I have attained to the greatest perfection in transparent painting. This art consists in exhibiting the inside as well as the outside of my subject. In drawing a face in this way, not only the marks visible to vulgar eyes are completely pourtrayed, but the furniture behind the face, is exposed to view, particularly that generally called the brain. In drawing a full-length or bust, the heart is wholly uncovered, with all its dark and light shades—alI its rotten and defective specks, and even all its throbs and vibrations. This kind of painting, I understand, was formerly much in vogue ; but I believe the art is now in much danger of being lost. It is said to be very much discountenanced by some of our great men, insomuch that a person who keeps the necessary implements, (a glass called a Reflector, and a pencil called Truth) is almost certain to find an enemy in every upstart politician in the country. Besides, the colours used in this art are very expensive : Notwithstanding this, I have obtained an old glass, a pencil but little worn, and have laid in a small stock of colours, all of which shall be at the service of any gentleman or lady, young or old, who is not afraid to fit for the performance.

Hitherto I have not met with the best success, because I bad not perfectly acquired the art of flattering my customers. However, I shall endeavor to profit by I the lesion contained in the following fable, and do better in future, particularly in oil. In my transparencies, I can use no flattery.


”So very like a painter drew.
That ev’ry eye the picture knew;
He hit complexion, feature, air,
So just, the life itself was there.
No flatt’ry with his colours laid,
To bloom restor’d the faded maid ;
He gave each muscle all its strength i
The mouth, the chin, the nose’s length.
His honest pencil touch’d with truth,
And mark’d the date of age and youth.
He lost his friends, his practice fail’d ;
Truth should not always be reveal’d ;
In dusty piles his pictures lay,
For no one sent one second-pay.
Two bustos fraught with ev’ry grace,
A Venus and Apollo’s face,

He plac’d in view ; resolv‘d to please
Whoever sat, he drew from these ;
From these corrected every feature,
And spirited each awkward creature.

All things were set; the hour was come,
His pallet ready o’er his thumb.
My Lord appear’d ; and seated right
In proper attitude and light,
The painter look’d, he sketch’d the piece,
Then dipp’d his pencil, talk’d of Greece,
Of Titian’s tints, of Guido’s air;
Those eyes, my Lord, the spirit there,
Might well a Raphael’s hand require
To give them all the native sire.
The features fraught with sense and wit,
You’ll grant are very hard to hit;
But yet with patience you shall view
As much as paint and art can do.

Observe the work. My Lord replied.
Till now I thought my mouth was wide ;
Be rides, my nose is somewhat long ;
Dear Sir, for me ‘tis far too young !

Oh ! pardon me, the artist cried,
In this the painters must decide.
The piece ev’n common eyes must strike ;
I warrant it extremely like.

My Lord examin’d it anew ;
No looking-glass seemed half so true.

A Lady came : with borrow’d grace
He from his Venus form’d her face.
Her lover prais’d the Painter’s art;
So like the picture in his heart !
To ev’ry age same charm he lent ;
Ey’n beauties were almost content.
Thro’ ail the town his art was prais’d ;
His custom grew, his price was rais’d.
Had he the real likeness shown,
Would any man the picture own !
But when thus happily he wrought,
Each found the likeness in his thought.

I have set up a little shop, which may easily be found by those who seek it; and having put my pallet, pencil and paints in. order, am now ready to wait on customers. 



Dying along with the popularity of the Mammoth on display at Peale’s Museum about his time was the physiognotracer.  By1825, the fad of physiognotracing was less spoken about, although the role of traditional paintings and caricatures continued to change and remain a fairly solid part of the local economy for artisans and writers.  Oeale’s invention of a physiognotracer helped the professional of silhouette composition along for another generation, but the replacements for it were many in the years ahead, both in art and in the human psychology underlying its original interpretations and meaning. 

An influx of new thoughts related to physiognotracing came to the Hudson Valley–the science of phrenology.   Whereas physiognotracing was a study of arts and philosophy, with a little bit of human behavior and psychology thrown in, phrenology was an authentic science, or so its promoters thought.  The most famous of these promoters in the early years were attached to the Ivy league schools, but these professors and scholars would later withdraw some of their support and comments as much as possible due to issues that arose regarding this knack for compartmentalizing human form in relation to behavior that was taking place.  With culturally defined physical features being to blame for poor personality features and  the related social behavior problems, this upset the normal calmness that international Dutch heritage once gave this region.  

Phrenology would continue to be promoted for decades to come.  Its first step was to return to the metaphysical form this philosophy had taken in prior generations.  The Fowlers in particular made phrenology the means to udnerstand your friends, family and partner, and the means to make some metaphysical connection with those individual closest to you due to the Fowlers’ philosophy on how the mind worked in relation to the shape of the brain.  This philosophical science of phrenology would later became a way to study the criminal mind, and a way to define one’s occupational options.  Like many traditional medical beliefs, new uses for old ideologies is often what brings an old study back to life. 

The Hudson Valley people and their faces were no different from tens of thousands of people around the state, but their philosophical and openness to new philosophies was.  This enabled some of the older traditions to continue to be staples in the allied health fields during the post-Civil War years.  By then the beliefs of people in the valley were almost totally opposite of what their earliest heroes had taught them.  It takes two or more generations of deaths of old-timers in medicine and at home for new philosophies to erupt and then prevail when professional times get tough for the medical field.   The common thread remains the same throughout  these periods of transition, natural philosophy takes control of the social movements whenever religion cannot hold its reigns of personal and professional medical beliefs.  This is why important social leaders like Franklin Delano Roosevelt could so easily promote his own philosophy for how to deal with such a disabling disease.   Healing waters and nature were the ways to go, two resources which the Hudson Valley was very rich in compared with other parts of the country where regular medicine could not eliminate Roosevelt of his life’s limitations.

For more on Peale’s tracing tool, see http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=6450 and http://amphilsoc.org/mole/view?docId=ead/Mss.B.P31-ead.xml

Once again, the popularity of physiognotracing seemed to have reached its limits in the local social scene by the mid-1820s.  But this was not the end of the use of this important scientific discovery.  As noted earlier on another page, these teachings later became required readings at West Point.  The military needed to know the personality and character of their enemie’s leaders.  This made Lavater’s book on physiognomy a required reading for some of its students, published and purchased for use as a pocket book, an immediate reference to character, for every graduate opting to serve in a field of war. 





Additional References

Google Books, Daniel Atheron, noted in 1812 in the Medical Repository, p. 113