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Yesterday I reflected on 19th century given names, some of them staging a comeback. I doubt that “Orson” is among them, however. Beside Orson Welles, the only other “Orson” I know is Orson Squire Fowler, a mid-19th century character with a foot at each end of the genius–crackpot spectrum.

Mr Fowler popularized the octagonal house during the middle of his century, precisely when the Agincourt townsite was laid out and incorporated. Any of the city’s earliest settlers could have been familiar with his idea, which appeared in numerous popular journals and ultimately the 1853 book The Octagon House: A Home for All, the notion being that centrally-planned buildings—circles and octagons, primarily—held more useful interior volume with less surface area. They were easier to heat and ventilate and potentially enjoyed less space wasted for corridors. [The plan shown above left isn’t necessarily the finest example.]

Agincourt’s doodads, gewgaws, gimcracks, and thing-a-mabobs — all those eccentric artifacts that have made the town interesting to me — have had a tendency to survive. I wonder if the published inventory of Octagon houses nationwide might have overlooked an example in northwestern Iowa; the state had thirty-eight of them at one time. Why not one more.

Oh, and at the opposite end of the spectrum (the crackpot end), you’ll find Fowler’s name prominently connected with phrenology, the 19th century pseudo-science of reading the bumps on your head as analytical tools for understanding human behavior.

PS: Someone has just reminded me of Orson Bean, with a comparably looney theory about Orgone, “a pseudo-scientific spiritual concept variously described as an esoteric energy or hypothetical universal life force.”


1 Comment

  1. Ron Williams says:

    I find the differentiation of a parlor and a living room to be a distinction we no longer seem to make. I assume the parlor was for entertaining visitors, and the living room was for family. Perhaps not much different than the living room of my past, where we did very little living, and the family room off the kitchen, where much of the living actually happened.

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