I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
What Is Pelmanism?
An early entrant into the self-improvement industry, Pelmanism was a system that made extravagant claims about cognitive enhancements. It just required training and exercise.
William Joseph Ennever
Raised in a family of prominent piano manufacturers, it was expected that William Ennever would follow in the footsteps of his forebears. But, the boy Ennever had other plans.
A biographer notes that "Filled with a desire to see the world, he . . . ran away to sea instead of succeeding, as he might have done, in the centuries old manufacturing business of his father and grandfather."
Travelling the globe, the 18-year-old decided to be a writer. (As those of us who practice the craft know, it’s simple; all you need to do is line up a bunch of words on a page.) After three years of seafaring, he landed a job with Thomas Gibson Bowles, the man who founded The Lady and Vanity Fair magazines.
While toiling as an ink-stained wretch, Ennever came across a book entitled Assimilative Memory: or How to Attend and Never Forget, the work of a professor named Alphonse Loisette. "Dr." Loisette was actually Marcus Dwight Larrowe of New York. He also passed himself off as Silas Holmes from time to time.
He made his living by giving lectures far and wide about his memory enhancement method. His obituary noted that "In all of these places he gave lectures and readings under the patronage of the most distinguished personages, including presidents of colleges, superintendents of education and Governors of States and foreign colonies."
He died in 1899 at the age of 70 of dysentery, a rather undignified end for so distinguished a man of letters.
William Ennever was appointed by Loisette/Larrowe/Holmes to manage his memory training course in London, England.
Pelmanism Is Born
Using what he had learned from Loisette/Larrowe/Holmes, Ennever set up The Pelman Institute in 1898. (This does sound a bit naughty and is the reason employees today are often required to sign non-compete agreements to guarantee they won’t go off and start up rival businesses.)
However, it seems Loisette/Larrowe/Holmes stole his ideas from earlier sources. It looks as though there were a fair number of scoundrels circling around the mind-improvement trade.
Some sources say that a psychologist called Christopher Louis Pelman created the institute rather than being a collaborator with Ennever. However, as time went by, Pelman’s contribution began to be written out of the narrative.
The institute sold "scientific" methods for improving memory via correspondence courses. The scheme was heavily advertised as being able to deal with forgetfulness, inertia, depression, indefiniteness, procrastination, and a mysterious ailment known as "brain fog."
Pelmanism "makes and keeps your brain keen, fresh, vigilant, and self-reliant, and develops such positive qualities as creative imagination, optimism, speaking and debating power, cheerfulness, ambition," etc., etc., etc.
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Ennever, and thousands of people who came after him, sold self-help based on the old Texas saying that "If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got."
The Popularity of Pelmanism
With such a cascade of the many benefits touted for Pelmanism, people rushed to buy their brain-boosting kits. Sales were helped along by testimonials from such luminaries as British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, and novelist Baroness Orczy.
The idea behind Pelmanism is that the 1.4 kg (about three pounds) of meat inside the average skull can be trained just like biceps and deltoids. One of the sales lines used by the Pelman Institute was "Build mind just as the physical instructor builds muscle."
Participants, called Pelmanists, were sold booklets outlining mental exercises. One was to stand in a place and write down everything the student was able to see, smell, and hear. There were stretching and breathing exercises as though limbering up for a yoga session.
There were brain teasers such as the Knight’s Tour, in which the knight on a chess board is moved to land on every square, but only once.
The Rise and Fall of Pelmanism
At its height, Pelmanism counted more than 500,000 people as its followers.
William Ennever made a fortune out of his memory enhancement techniques, but he had a taste for extravagances―a yacht and multiple homes. The Great Depression ate into his wealth and, by 1941, he was bankrupt. For a while, the Pelman Institute continued to operate without its founder’s involvement.
Then, a new self-improvement phenomenon arrived in the form of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Backed by a slick marketing campaign, Carnegie’s system elbowed Pelmanism into obscurity.
Ennever’s daughter Kathleen and other family members claimed that Carnegie stole William’s methods. Perhaps, they didn’t know that Ennever stole the ideas of Loisette/Larrowe/Holmes in setting up Pelmanism, or that Loisette/Larrowe/Holmes probably lifted his scheme from another predecessor.
In 1947, William Ennever died, leaving an estate of £139. That’s about $7,600 in today’s money.
- A card game known as Pelmanism, Concentration, and Pairs is still played. All 52 cards in a deck are placed face down and players turn over two, if they hit two of the same value they remove them. If they don’t get a match they turn the cards face down and the next player has a go. The trick is to remember where a matching card is lying to the first one you have turned over.
- The seminars, podcasts, books, and DVDs add up to a self-help industry worth $10 billion a year. However, as psychologist, Jim Taylor points out in The Saturday Evening Post, "If someone had actually found the answer to the question, 'How do people change?,' there would be no self-help industry, just one very rich person."
- In 1885, Mark Twain patented his Memory-Builder, "a game for acquiring and retaining all sorts of facts and dates." He wrote that "Many public-school children seem to know only two dates—1492 and the 4th of July; and as a rule they don’t know what happened on either occasion. It is because they have not had a chance to play this game." It’s available for play at this University of Oregon website.
- “Marcus Dwight ‘Prof. A. Loisette’ Larrowe.” Findagrave.com, undated.
- “The Man with Half a Million Followers.” St John Karp, ennever.com, 2007
- “This Column Will Change Your Life: Has Pelmanism’s Time Come at Last?” Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, August 31, 2012.
- “Brain-Training Isn’t just a Modern Phenomenon, the Edwardians Were also Fans.” Benjamin Katz, The Conversation, September 1, 2014.
- “Is the Self-help Industry a Fraud?” Jim Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, January 14, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Ann Carr from SW England on January 27, 2021:
It can be cards with pictures or words or anything you like, which is good because that makes it versatile and can be used as a learning aid as well as a memory exercise - the best bit is that it's fun so most children or adults don't see it as learning!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 27, 2021:
Hi Ann. I used to play Pelmanism with my grandmother even though she had had a serious stroke. The name of the game cam into my brain from I know not where so I started researching and discovered what appears here. I thought it was just a card game.
Ann Carr from SW England on January 27, 2021:
Interesting. I play Pelmanism/Pairs with my grandchildren and I used it a lot for my dyslexic students, to aid memory skills. Repetition aids the process of short-term memory passing into long-term recall, so any reinforcing activity is helpful. Exercise is also good for the brain. Mark Twain was an astute man too! I didn't come across that nugget of info when I was researching for a hub about him. This was a fascinating and amusing read.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 27, 2021:
An interesting story though. In the 1980's, I thouph the Pelmanist Institute was churning out some foreign language courses? Many thanks.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 26, 2021: