January 17, 2013

Birth of Franklin: our first-fruits

"Franklin the Printer" by Charles E. Mills (c. 1914), from Library of Congress
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on what today would be labeled January 17, 1706 (January 6, according to the Old Style). As one of the most colorful Founding Fathers, Franklin also had an exceptional literary career beginning before his teen years as an apprentice to his brother, a printer. At age 16, his first editorials were published under the pseudonym Mrs. Silence Dogood (his brother printed these letters without knowing the author's identity at first).

Still a teenager, Franklin moved to Philadelphia and worked in print shops there. In 1728, he established his own publication, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and two years later he wrote the charter for what became the Library Company of Philadelphia. In 1733, he began Poor Richard's Almanack Throughout all his other accomplishments — diplomat, inventor, scientist, postmaster, for example — he remained most fond of his role as a printer. His lengthiest work as an author is his autobiography, inspired originally as a letter to his son. In that book, he describes setting up his print shop in Philadelphia (and the alleged state of the city) after returning from London:

We had not been long returned to Philadelphia before the new types arrived from London... We had scarce opened our letters and put our press in order, before George House, an acquaintance of mine, brought a countryman to us, whom he had met in the street inquiring for a printer. All our cash was now expended in the variety of particulars we had been obliged to procure, and this countryman's five shillings, being our first-fruits, and coming so seasonably, gave me more pleasure than any crown I have since earned; and the gratitude I felt toward House has made me often more ready than perhaps I should otherwise have been to assist young beginners.

There are croakers in every country, always boding its ruin. Such a one then lived in Philadelphia; a person of note, an elderly man, with a wise look and a very grave manner of speaking; his name was Samuel Mickle. This gentleman, a stranger to me, stopped one day at my door, and asked me if I was the young man who had lately opened a new printing-house. Being answered in the affirmative, he said he was sorry for me, because it was an expensive undertaking, and the expense would be lost; for Philadelphia was a sinking place, the people already half bankrupts, or near being so; all appearances to the contrary, such as new buildings and the rise of rents, being to his certain knowledge fallacious; for they were, in fact, among the things that would soon ruin us. And he gave me such a detail of misfortunes now existing, or that were soon to exist, that he left me half melancholy. Had I known him before I engaged in this business, probably I never should have done it. This man continued to live in this decaying place, and to declaim in the same strain, refusing for many years to buy a house there, because all was going to destruction; and at last I had the pleasure of seeing him give five times as much for one as he might have bought it for when he first began his croaking.

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