Nov 142016

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), American scientist, diplomat, and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, identified himself as a printer. He wrote his own epitaph long before he died: “The Body of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, Printer. Like the Covering of an old Book, Its contents torn out and stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be lost, It will (as he believ’d) appear once more In a new and more beautiful Edition Corrected and amended By the Author.”

Franklin apprenticed in the Boston printing shop of his brother James from the age of twelve, but ran away at seventeen to Philadelphia. In 1724 he was sent to London where he worked as a printer in the firm of John Watts (where this press is said to have been used) before returning to Philadelphia in 1726. By 1730 he had set up his own printing business and published a newspaper, which gave him a forum for political expression. His political activities led to his involvement in the movement to free the Colonies from British rule. He spent the years 1757–1762 and 1764–1775 in England, returning to Philadelphia to participate in the First Continental Congress. From 1776–1785 he served in France, securing vital French assistance for the American revolutionary effort.
The Franklin press in the Museum’s collection is an English common press made early in the eighteenth century. It was on exhibition in the U.S. National Museum beginning in the 1880s, and it was shown in the Hall of Printing and Graphic Arts in this museum from 1964 to 2003. It is missing some of its parts, such as its gallows, tympan, and frisket, so it cannot be operated. A full-sized working replica of the press was made in 1984 for the Museum’s exhibition, Life in America–After the Revolution.
The story of how this press came to be associated with Franklin is rather complicated. While in England in 1768, Franklin is said to have visited the Watts firm and saluted the press in the shop where he had worked some 25 years before. A plaque added to the press in 1833 reads:
“Dr. Franklin’s Remarks relative to this Press, made when he came to England as agent of Massachusetts, in the year 1768. The Doctor at this time visited the printing office of Mr. Watts, of Wild Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and going up to this particular press (afterwards in the possession of Messrs. Cox & Son, of Great Queen Street, of whom it was purchased) thus addressed the men who were working at it. ‘Come my friends, we will drink together. It is now forty years since I worked like you, at this press, as a journeyman printer.’ The Doctor then sent out for a gallon of porter, and he drank with them- “Success to Printing”
Franklin’s visit was recalled by elderly printers who testified to the identity of the press three-quarters of a century later. In 1841 the press was presented as “the Franklin press” to American banker John B. Murray, who received it for the express purpose of exhibiting it to attract contributions for the London Printers’ Pension Society. He shipped it to the United States to be displayed as a relic associated with Franklin. It was shown at the Patent Office, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum before being sold to the Smithsonian by Murray’s widow in 1901.
Currently not on view
press, printing
ca 1720
Franklin, Benjamin
Franklin, James
Watts, John
Murray, John M.
wood (overall material)
iron (overall material)
steel (overall material)
brass (overall material)
overall: 78 in x 30 1/2 in x 57 in; 198.12 cm x 77.47 cm x 144.78 cm
United Kingdom: England
Culture and the Arts: Graphic Arts
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Harris, Elizabeth M.. Printing Presses in the Graphic Arts Collection

Attribution\Photo Description

  • National Museum of American History

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