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Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790)

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A printer, author, library organizer, inventor, diplomat, scientist, philanthropist, and statesman, Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1703, the fifteenth child of Abiah and Josiah Franklin. At that time, more than half of the booksellers in the New World were within a quarter of a mile of his birthplace. It is little wonder, then, that Franklin learned to read early in life (“I do not remember when I could not read”). He spent many hours poring over the works of authors such as John Bunyan and Cotton Mather, works he found in the small libraries of his father and his friend Matthew Adams. The life-story record Franklin left of his eclectic reading interests demonstrates that it was always socioculturally mediated, no matter what his stage of life or his location. From these works it appears that he developed the sense of duty, self-improvement, and moralism that characterized his adult life. In the works of Enlightenment thinkers, he developed a faith in reason and order and cultivated an interest in science and benevolence.

In 1718, Franklin was apprenticed as a printer to his brother James, publisher of The New England Courant. Under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood,” Franklin penned a series of letters in 1722, and although the readers received them favorably, his brother was annoyed. In 1723, Franklin fled Boston (with three years left on his apprenticeship) and shortly thereafter took up residence in Philadelphia to work as a compositor in the printing establishment of Samuel Keimer. In 1728, Franklin formed a printing partnership in Philadelphia with Hugh Meredith, and over the years, he became the official printer for several colonial legislatures. Generally, Franklin confined his printing business to practical materials of immediate use and market potential and avoided efforts to produce fine printing.

In 1730, Franklin acquired the Pennsylvania Gazette (which Keimer had founded two years earlier), and this newspaper became the centerpiece of his printing business. He made it lively and local, yet balanced enough in his coverage of colonial politics to be open to all parties. “In the Conduct of my Newspaper I carefully excluded all Libelling and Personal Abuse,” he later wrote in his autobiography. His “open press” strategy—as much economic as political—became the model most Middle Colonies printers followed in the first half of the eighteenth century. It enabled Franklin to print polemical pamphlets on most sides of any debate. One example of this practice was manifest in the printing opportunities sparked by George Whitefield’s Great Awakening revivals of 1739-1741. At his own risk, Franklin published devotional books that Whitefield had recommended, and between 1740 and 1742, he printed forty-three books and pamphlets—both for and against Whitefield and his revivals. By advertising for subscribers in the Gazette , he was able to generate cash in advance of producing copy. In 1741, Franklin began publishing General Magazine (a 70-to 76-page duodecimo monthly modeled after London’s Gentleman’s Magazine ), which carried reports of the proceedings of colonial legislatures and other public issues. Due to lack of interest, however, General Magazine ceased after six issues.

In 1732, Franklin issued the first edition of his Poor Richard’s Almanack , a small tome consisting of well-known aphorisms that Franklin first appropriated and then modified for a New World audience. “I endeavor’d to make it both entertaining and useful,” he said later, “and it accordingly came to be in such Demand that I reap’d considerable Profit from it.” It became an immediate bestseller, sold out ten thousand copies shortly after it was published, and made Franklin a celebrated author at home and (eventually) abroad. Franklin also experimented with printing German-language materials, but he ultimately financed Anton Ambruster to run a separate office for this market.

Although Franklin profited most from his newspaper, almanacs, and job printing, he also engaged in what he called “book work.” Franklin’s printing office doubled as a bookshop where customers could peruse works that Franklin had printed and published, or imported. The latter usually consisted of Bibles and testaments or primary education schoolbooks that generated a steady but not heavy demand. Most bookstore sales came from his own publications.

In 1727, Franklin organized the Philadelphia Junto, a group of twelve like-minded individuals who were interested in self-improvement through discussion of politics, morals, and natural philosophy. Because the Junto was regularly frustrated over a lack of information on which to ground meaningful debates, Franklin recommended in 1730 that the membership begin “clubbing our Books to a common Library” so that each would have “the Advantage of using the Books of all the other Members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if we owned the whole.” The experiment was short-lived, however. Too many Junto members despaired of the care and arrangement afforded their textual treasures.

Franklin was undeterred. In 1731, he “set on foot my first Project of a public Nature” and organized the Library Company of Philadelphia, which decades later he referred to as “the Mother of all N. American Subscription Libraries now so numerous.” Shares were sold to provide capital to buy books (most of which were ordered from London); annual dues provided for ongoing purchases. Company members were, for the most part, merchants interested in practical information for self-improvement. Franklin served as “librarian” from December 1733 to March 1734, as secretary to the Library Company from 1746 to 1757, and remained a member his entire life. By 1776, at least eighteen social libraries existed in the colonies, all of which were modeled after the Library Company. By the end of his life, Franklin was convinced that social libraries had “improved the general conversation of the Americans.”

By the time he had started the Library Company of Philadelphia, Franklin had already perceived British North America’s potential as a political and cultural unity and, in part, facilitated movement toward this potential—at least in the culture of print. He did this by fostering an informal network of printers (stretching from South Carolina to Massachusetts) who modeled his precedents. As the deputy postmaster of Philadelphia (1737-1753) and as deputy postmaster-general for the Colonies (1753-1774, serving with William Hunter), Franklin also worked to improve communication and information transfer in the New World.

Franklin, who retired from publishing in 1748 to devote himself to other interests, spent a large portion of his later life living in England and France—serving as the colonies’ official emissary to France during the American Revolution. While in Europe, he solicited gifts for the American Philosophical Society (which he had founded in 1743) and negotiated exchange agreements with similar European societies for the society’s Transactions. After he returned to the newly founded United States of America, Franklin served as a delegate to the convention that framed the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Few people in colonial America were as influential as Franklin in establishing a culture of print that functioned as a primary agency to facilitate communication and information creation, storage, and dissemination. Franklin married Deborah Read on September 1, 1730, and by her had two children; he also fathered two illegitimate children. When Franklin died on April 17, 1790, his library contained 4,276 volumes. He once joked that he wanted his epitaph to read “B. Franklin, Printer”; the final inscription, however, read “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”

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