Very Sensitive Chinese Leaves

Choleric? Sanguine? Melancholy? Reserved? Entertainment and self-assessment in 19th century Boston

In 1820s to 1830s Boston, one merchant wanted to help you find your fortune; to help you discover what kind of temperament you really had. Eager to understand your physiology and temperament, you would hurry over to the Music Saloon, located at No. 34 & 36 Market Street, in Boston.

Once there, you would buy this broadside which came with two small sensitive Chinese leaves. One leaf was smaller than the other; “the smallest for the ladies, to be placed on the palm of the left hand, as being nearest to the heart.” Each “Chinese Sensitive Leaf” would be a sympathetic barometer to aid in disclosing an individual’s temperament.

What We Are Talking About — [Unk.] The Chinese Sensitive Leaf, Discovered by a celebrated Physician and eminent Professor of Botany and Chemistry, named Zaphrintra, of China, Afterwards introduced into other parts of the Continent, and into England, by a very Learned and Sensible Foreigner… [opening lines of broadside] [Boston? c. 1820s–1830s.] [1]p. Approx. 9½ x 5¾ inches. Untrimmed, as issued. Without two fortune-telling leaves.

If you believed this broadside (and hopefully you were taking it all in with more than a few grains of salt) you were getting a cheap method for behavioral self-assessment from an eminent Chinese professor of botany and chemistry; the illustrious Zaphrintra of China.

We spent some time looking for Professor Zaphrintra. From what we gather, he showed up in the imagination of Bostonians as a blip of small type on this broadside, had some tea, looked around, and decided he was no more to be found. (With apologies to any currently-living, or formerly-living descendants, of Dr. Zaphrintra should we be mistaken in doubting Dr. Z’s actual existence.)

This rare 19th-century broadside proclaimed the Chinese sensitive leaf “phenomena” was “well worthy the inspection and patronage of every Amateur of Natural Curiosities, and will introduce much towards the pleasing amusement of the sociable and fashionable world…” Was it? Well, it was likely a good party trick or perhaps a good way to start opinionated arguments among friends and spouses.

If you were a Choleric Person, the leaf would roll up and incline towards the wrist. If Sanguine, the leaf would curl up and hastily abandon the hand. Such a man was:

“[A] ruddy complexion, is cheerful and easy in his manners, fond of, and encourages, the refinements of art and elegancies [sic] of life, is partial to the chase, and joins with alacrity the youthful party in their most animated diversions. The ladies differ, but little, except in adding those engaging qualities which make them truly fascinating…”

The leaf had other ideas, for other kinds of people. If it moved slowly on the hand, you were a Reserved Melancholy Person. If the leaf moved into the position of a circle and so remained you were a Phlegmatic Person. The characteristics and temperaments of each are described in full.

The anonymous author of the broadside hedges their bets as to the efficacy of the system. (Best not to to invest your hard-earned coin into this outfit.) Wrap your head around this Disclaimer which has almost as much clarity as your average 2015 online TOS agreement:

Though it is not the design of the vendor to enforce an implicit dependence on the following descriptive conclusion, yet some reliance may be placed as its operations are so various on different persons; and he can assert, without any exaggeration, that he has repeatedly witnessed those corroborating effects produced among his acquaintances; however, the chief object now in view of novelty and amusement, will certainly be attained.

Talk about the small print.

Bostonians like their tea and their tea parties—as much as in any urban American city we’ve heard—but we would like to know if anyone is still up that way reading sensitive Chinese leaves. Yesterday, I was feeling this strange mix of choleric, sanguine, melancholy and reserved. I’m looking for a base-line.

P.S. We find James A. Dickson listed as the proprietor of the Music Saloon, at 34 Market Street, in an 1820 Boston city directory. Also, see Fisher’s Notes on Music in Old Boston for a brief mention on Dickson (Boston, 1818).

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