The Business of Self-Improvement in the Pelman Age

This is a paper about the remarkable rise and fall of the Pelman Institute and the correspondence course known as Pelmanism. From the 1890s to the 1960s, tens of thousands of people across the world committed themselves to the task of “improving” their personality. Following the Pelman Institute and its members, I seek to explain why self-improvement became a global business, and how, in turn, Pelmanism disappeared from popular memory. This is also an intimate history of what self-improvement meant to the ordinary men and women who signed up for Pelman courses — about the changing nature of aspiration and anxiety in the modern world.

Matt Houlbrook is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-57 (2005) and Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (2016).