Wait. Isn’t that …?
I was just entering Independence Hall Park in Philadelphia when the man strode past me, too quickly to see much more than a blur. An anachronism, this elderly gentleman in his heavy tan tailcoat and silver-buckled shoes. But familiar, too.
The hair was the giveaway: bald on top, long and silver on the sides. The hair, and those knickers — tres Colonial. Who else could it be — especially right here, outside Independence Hall — but Ben?
Nobody else seemed to notice him. Nobody pointed or ran up to him for a selfie. Maybe everyone else was just used to Ben’s presence. This is, after all, Philadelphia, where there are almost as many Ben Franklins as there are Elvises in Vegas.
Franklin had his hands on so many aspects of life in Colonial times that you will find his fingerprints all over town today: The Philadelphia Free Library, the first public library in the country. The B. Free Franklin Post Office, where Ben, as postmaster general, laid the groundwork for a nationwide mail system. The 101-foot-tall Bolt of Lightning, sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, a paean to the man as scientist.
The Bolt, by the way, is near the Ben Franklin Bridge, just one of many major features of Philadelphia’s infrastructure named for him. I’d call him a favorite son, but he wasn’t born there. He arrived from Boston in 1722 at the age of 17, ready to begin a new life as a printer. By the time he was 42, he declared that he’d made enough money and retired from full-time printing to spend more time on his experiments with electricity.
He did a lot more than fly kites, however. He invented such far-flung gadgets as lightning rods, swim flippers, the glass armonica and (because he needed them) bifocals. He helped establish Philadelphia’s Quaker Meeting House and supported the Mikveh Israel Jewish congregation. He began the academy that grew into the University of Pennsylvania; and with Dr. Thomas Bond started Philadelphia Hospital.
All this plus the Founding Father gig.
You can learn about the multifaceted Mr. F. at the museum that bears his name, in the square that bears his name. The Benjamin Franklin Museum reopened last September after a two-year, $24 million renovation. Under the auspices of the National Park Service, both the technology and the museum’s mission have been updated.
The free-flowing museum aims to present all aspects of Franklin’s life (citizen, printer, inventor, author, statesman and philosopher) and organizes the exhibitions according to different traits — “Ardent & Dutiful,” “Ambitious & Rebellious,” “Motivated to Improve,” “Curious & Full of Wonder” and “Strategic & Persuasive.” The museum wants to present Franklin the man, not the myth.
The museum exhibits about 30 of the artifacts in its collection, including Franklin’s beloved chess set. He was passionate about the game and would play deep into the night — limited only by his supply of candles, as one friend observed.
“Life is a kind of chess,” Franklin once wrote, “in which we often have Points to gain, & Competitors or Adversaries to contend with … The game is so full of events … that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of Victory from our own skill.”
Back outside in Franklin Court, you will also find the United States Postal Service Museum and the Franklin Print Shop, for more information and demonstrations about his work in both those fields. The most obvious structure in the court, however, is the 54-foot steel Ghost House, outlining the space where Franklin’s house once stood.
I took a different approach to learning about Franklin — by exploring the city he’d adopted as his home. It wasn’t even a conscious choice. I was just doing my usual sightseeing and began to notice how often Ben Franklin’s name came up. Soon, I had gathered so much information on the man, I felt like I knew him.
Below are some of my favorite ways to follow in the footsteps of Ben Franklin.
I love Elfreth’s Alley, a narrow cobblestone street in Old City. Elfreth’s, named after a blacksmith and landowner who bought land and built houses there in 1702, is said to be the oldest continually occupied residential street in America.
It is a rare example of a preserved working-class neighborhood. The compact, modest houses on the street were occupied by craftsmen and tradesmen who would set up shops on the first floor and live on the second.
Today, most of the 32 houses are privately owned, and the occupants are required to maintain them — as well as tolerate the presence of curious visitors day and night. The houses were built from 1728 to 1836, and their facades offer a wealth of insight into the changes in society, the economy and the change from handmade crafts to the industrial revolution.
If you look carefully at the facades, too, you’ll discover Benjamin’s contribution to that progress.
On the second-floor windows, you’ll notice a sort of black metal projection that looks like an open book. It’s actually two angled mirrors, and it’s called a busybody. Franklin came up with the gadget so people could see who was knocking at their door — or even coming down the street — without going downstairs.
You may also notice an iron plaque on the facade bearing a symbol like four hands forming a diamond or a tower with a hose. These are fire marks, showing that the occupant purchased fire insurance and if there were ever a fire on the street, the insurance company’s fire department should try to put it out.
Ben’s work, again. Franklin started the Union Fire Co., the first volunteer fire department in the Colonies, in 1736. In 1751 Franklin organized the first insurance company, the Philadelphia Contributorship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire.
Just down Second Street, two blocks from Elfreth’s Alley, in a restored 1902 firehouse, you can learn about the history of firefighting at the Fireman’s Hall Museum. Owned by the city, the museum is operated by the Philadelphia Fire Department, a direct descendant of the volunteer group Franklin organized. Its collection is considered one of the best in the country and includes everything from leather buckets used by the bucket brigade to a vintage hand-pump you can try yourself.
The insurance company, too, remains alive and well and has a small museum at its headquarters with original documents and contracts that Franklin not only helped compose, but printed as well.
Stop in at Christ Church on Arch Street between Fourth and Fifth streets. Here Franklin, his wife and children worshiped from Pew 70. The Franklins were laid to rest at the church’s burial ground on Arch Street. You can literally pay your respects there: His grave is always covered with pennies from visitors.
I’m skipping the obvious Ben-related sites that were central to the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the Constitution. You’re going to go there anyway. Instead, head toward the Parkway named after our pal, where you’ll find the Franklin Institute.
Ben wasn’t the founder, but he was the inspiration for this interactive museum, which began as a scientific research institution in 1824. The institute is home to the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial — an imposing, 20-foot marble likeness of Franklin in the institute’s soaring rotunda. In 1972, Congress designated it the official national memorial to Franklin.
The institute also has some Franklin-related artifacts on display including the musical instrument he created, the glass armonica.
I wanted to end as I did with my last visit to Philly, at the American Philosophical Society museum and library because it left me with the most meaningful insight into Franklin’s talent, his genius.
Ben was its founder. He and some friends created the society in 1743 to “promote useful knowledge … to the benefit of mankind,” Franklin explained.
Members were movers and shakers, people who observed, discovered, contributed to the world’s knowledge. Many of the Founding Fathers were members, as were writers, craftspeople, architects. More recent members have included Toni Morrison, Yo-Yo Ma, I.M. Pei, Sandra Day O’Connor and Nelson Mandela.
The library is home to 10 million manuscripts, 250,000 volumes and bound periodicals, and thousands of maps and prints. It holds first editions of Isaac Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the elephant folio of Audubon’s Birds of North America, a majority of Franklin imprints and a significant portion of Franklin’s personal library.
A handwritten copy of Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence is the star archive. The fragile document was specially framed so you can see both sides of it. Cross-outs, notes in the margins and alterations to the text show the changes and edits.
Jefferson sent a copy of his first draft to Franklin, for whom he had great respect. Franklin, at heart a newspaperman, was an adept editor and used a light touch on Jefferson’s words. Most notable was this small change from Jefferson’s original wording:
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal …”
Franklin’s change: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are …”
In one small change, he removed the contentious issue of religion from the table and recast it as a matter of rational thinking. The point is so self-evident, only an irrational person could object.
Franklin knew words. He also understood the priorities of the Colonies as they were poised to become a country free to shape its own future.
He knew how to deal with opponents, and obstacles. He made his moves matter.
Kind of like chess.
He was right again.
Going to Philadelphia
WHERE TO STAY
WHAT TO DO