Although Franklin didn’t arrive in Philadelphia until he was 17 (after running away from an apprenticeship with his brother in his hometown of Boston), and spent over 30 years away from the city representing US interests in Europe, he influenced Philadelphia more than any other individual. You can’t walk more than a few steps in Philadelphia without running into his legacy. (This is my justification for such a long post!)
Franklin originally headed south to Philadelphia after receiving a tip that he might find employment there as a printer. As described in his autobiography, Franklin’s first appearance in Philadelphia was pretty memorable. His first stop after disembarking was to visit a bakery, where his money went further than expected and he ended up with 3 large loaves, so “…having no room in my pockets, walk’d off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. Thus I went up Market-street as far as Fourth-street, passing by the door of Mr. Read, my future wife’s father; when she, standing at the door, saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward, ridiculous appearance.” He then visited the Quaker meeting house (no longer around, but you can still visit its 1804 replacement) where he promptly fell asleep on a pew and had to be woken up after the service finished.
Franklin did get a job as a printer, and (after an unexpected sojourn in London after a business deal fell through and he was stranded there with no money), eventually purchased his own print shop and became highly successful. Today, you can visit a recreated colonial-era print shop, housed in one of Franklin’s rental properties, where you can watch printing press demonstrations and purchase souvenir copies of famous documents and Franklin quotes (free- part of Independence National Historic Park).
Tip: check out the hands-on-history tours at The Rosenbach Museum. If you get lucky, they might be offering their Founding Fathers tour and you can hold a copy of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac (Hands-on History at The Rosenbach Library (Frankenstein, The Founding Fathers, and much more)).
Next door, at 318 Market Street, in another c. 1786 rental property, the Park Service has an archeological exhibit featuring artifacts found buried in Franklin Court. The building has been stripped down to the bare walls, showing 18th century building practices and highlighting some of Franklin’s fire safety improvements.
Across the passageway is a working post office, where you can get your mail hand cancelled with the “B Free” stamp — a nod to Franklin’s stint as Post Master General of the colonies, and later, the US.
Between the buildings is the passageway that Franklin used to access his house. Following in Franklin’s footsteps you reach the site of his home and print shop. Torn down in 1812, they are memorialized by the “ghost house” and weird 70’s structures through which you can view archaeological remains of Franklin’s house (Ben Franklin’s Ghost House).
This is is also the site of the Ben Franklin museum (note: this is the only park service site with an entrance fee; fun for kids and Franklin fans, it’s set up to focus on his character traits) and where you can stand on Franklin’s privy pit (Ben Franklin’s Toilet).
For all of Franklin’s popularity and good works, he was not a great husband (in fact, he was only a common law husband – after he first ditched Deborah to travel to England, she ended up marrying a loser who ran off with her dowry, so she could never officially remarry). Despite this, Deborah raised their kids, including Ben’s illegitimate son, and ran his businesses while he was away negotiating (i.e partying) as the agent for several of the American colonies in London. He spent 19 years in London, returning home for only 18 months of this time (the only home of Franklin that still stands dates from this period and is located in central London). Towards the end, Deborah pleaded for him to return (he ignored her requests), and later suffered from several strokes. Franklin didn’t return home until after her death, when he lost his popularity with the British government after leaking documents that led to uprisings in Boston, and had to return to look after his business affairs. He arrived home just in time to help write the Declaration of Independence. Several excerpts from his rather condescending and bossy letters to Deborah adorn the courtyard of the ghost house.
After returning to Europe to serve another nine years as ambassador to France, Franklin returned home to act as one of Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention. He was the oldest delegate and one of only six men to be sign both founding documents. Apparently, his fellow delegates were so worried about the elderly loquacious Franklin’s ability to keep the behind-closed-doors negotiations secret that they assigned constant companions to watch him and had him travel to and from Independence Hall in an enclosed sedan chair. About the constitutional debates, he is quoted as saying “I have often looked at that (medallion) behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I… know that it is a rising… sun.” You can see the actual chair he referred to on a visit to Independence Hall. When asked about the new government, he replied with the now famous line, “Our new constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” You can take a selfie with Franklin and all the Constitutional Convention members in Signers Hall at the Constitution Center.
A true man of the enlightenment, Franklin believed in the power of man to improve himself. In his autobiography, he devotes a chapter to his “plan for attaining moral perfection” (#13 humility: imitate Jesus and Socrates). One of the first things he did after moving to Philadelphia was to organize his “junto,” a group of like-minded friends who met for discussions and self improvement. Since books were so expensive, one of their first acts was to create a lending library. The resulting Library Company is still in existence (although in a different location), is still financed by subscribers, and still houses the original collection (which served as the Library of Congress while the capital was in Philadelphia). This suggestion box hung on the wall and is still a part if the Library Company’s collection (The Library Company: Another Historical Treasure and American First).
The group also started The American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in the United States. Founded in 1743, Benjamin Franklin was its first president and meetings were held in his home before construction of Philosophical Hall (where the museum is located today (Treasures of the American Philosophical Society). The extensive collection contains the original 1781 member’s roll book with Franklin’s signature.
In addition to other Franklin memorabilia, the institution owns Franklin’s personal library and his library chair, whose seat lifts up to reveal a step stool.
Like many of the founding fathers, Franklin was a prominent free mason, reaching the rank of Grand Master, and remained a mason throughout his life. His lodge is long gone, but you can tour the spectacular Victorian replacement (Philly’s Exotic Masonic Temple).
Franklin’s printing empire (which extended throughout the colonies) was so successful that it enabled him to retire at 42 and spend rest of his life devoted to inventing and public service.
Franklin’s most well known experiments, both in his time and ours, had to do with electricity -as this painting by Benjamin West at the Philadelphia Museum of Art romanticizes.
Today you can visit the spot (today’s St. Stephen’s church) where this may (or may not) have occurred.
His invention of the lightning rod came out of this work. Supposedly, parts of one of his lightening rods still exists at Old Swedes Church, although we weren’t able to spot it. The sculpture by Isamu Naguchi (termed “the ugliest piece of art in Philadelphia” by Philadelphia Magazine) greets drivers at the base of the Ben Franklin bridge (no actual link to Franklin, just named in his honor, but a nice walk: Walking the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Another Franklin invention was his version of a metal-lined fireplace, the first free standing cast iron heating stove, designed using the principles of air flow to increase efficiency. Called the Franklin Stove (although its design was later tweaked by friend David Rittenhouse), it was popular and remained in production through the 19th century. This early 1800’s model was produced at Batso Ironworks in NJ. Like all of his inventions, Franklin refused to take out patents, believing, “we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”
As you wander down Elfreth’s Alley, the country’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street, look up to see the “Busy Lizzies.” Yep. Another invention attributed to Franklin.
Beer lovers should look for Yard’s brews at local pubs, and try “Poor Richard’s Spruce Ale,” based on Franklin’s own recipe.
Perhaps his most unique contribution was his design for the glass armonica. Housed at the Franklin museum along with several other inventions (bifocals, swim fins, etc), both Beethoven and Mozart composed pieces for this instrument.
If all this wasn’t enough, Franklin had a role (promoting, serving on boards, fundraising, etc.) for civic institutions, many of which are still around today.Franklin pioneered and was the first President of the college that became the University of Pennsylvania. He sat on the board of trustees until his death. Started in Old City, the school moved to its present site in 1872, long after Franklin’s death, but there are reminders of him on campus, including quotes and a statue along Franklin’s Way.
Pennsylvania Hospital was the first hospital in the United States and another legacy of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was one of the founders, and sat on the board- although he apparently had to be fined repeatedly for tardiness at board meetings. You can still see the original cornerstone with the inscription written by Franklin (A Look Inside America’s Oldest Hospital & the Oldest (Existing) Operating Theater in the World).
Eastern State Penitentiary is yet another Franklin legacy. The brainchild of Franklin and his “Philosophical Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons,” Eastern State was designed as a true penitentiary – a place for criminals to become penitent and reform (unlike regular prisons of the day, which were holding pens for prisoners guilty of lesser crimes – most crimes were punished with public humiliation or physical punishment/death). A tour of the prison today illustrates the impact of its philosophy on prisons around the world. (Solitary Confinement, Al Capone and Flush Toilets: Exploring Philly’s Cutting Edge (for 1821) Eastern State Penitentiary).
Franklin was also co-founder of the Union Fire Company, America’s first volunteer fire brigade that helped put out all fires – not just those that it insured.
Franklin also created the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss of Fire. This insurance company offered policies to cover the cost of damage to burned buildings. Today it still exists as the Philadelphia Contributionship and is the nation’s oldest property insurance company.
Although a deist, Franklin was involved with Christ Church and organized a lottery to fund its 1754 steeple addition. He and Deborah were members (pew #70). This is where his daughter was baptized, and where Franklin and Deborah are buried, an appropriate end to this long post!(Getting Lucky at Ben Franklin’s Grave (Christ Church Cemetery)).