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“A Most Awkward, Ridiculous Appearance”: Benjamin Franklin Enters Philadelphia

When Boston native Benjamin Franklin entered Philadelphia in 1723, he had few coins in his pocket and scarce entrepreneurial skills. However, Franklin did have valuable training as a printer, and he came armed with some significant introductions to local printers. Printers and other craftsmen relied upon a network of masters, journeymen, and patrons to learn the craft and support themselves. Colonial printers needed expensive imported equipment, yet they had to make do with a limited market for their services—perhaps publishing a newspaper, an occasional pamphlet, or government publication. Franklin wrote his autobiography, from which this account is excerpted, many years after his career as an active printer had ended and his renown as a statesmen, scientist, and moral philosopher had spread.

I have been the more particular in this description of my journey, and shall be so of my first entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there. I was in my working dress, my best cloaths being to come round by sea. I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuff’d out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with travelling, rowing, and want of rest, I was very hungry; and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar, and about a shilling in copper. The latter I gave the people of the boat for my passage, who at first refus’d it, on account of my rowing; but I insisted on their taking it. A man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro' fear of being thought to have but little.

Then I walked up the street, gazing about till near the market-house I met a boy with bread. I had made many a meal on bread, and, inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the baker’s he directed me to, in Secondstreet, and ask’d for bisket, intending such as we had in Boston; but they, it seems, were not made in Philadelphia. Then I asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none such. So not considering or knowing the difference of money, and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I made him give me three-penny worth of any sort. He gave me, accordingly, three great puffy rolls. I was surpriz’d at the quantity, but took it, and, 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. Then I turned and went down Chestnut-street and part of Walnut-street, eating my roll all the way, and, corning round, found myself again at Market-street wharf, near the boat I came in, to which I went for a draught of the river water; and, being filled with one of my rolls, gave the other two to a woman and her child that came down the river in the boat with us, and were waiting to go farther.

Thus refreshed, I walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean-dressed people in it, who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great meeting-house of the Quakers near the market. I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro' labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.

Walking down again toward the river, and, looking in the faces of people, I met a young Quaker man, whose countenance I lik’d, and, accosting him, requested he would tell me where a stranger could get lodging. We were then near the sign of the Three Mariners. “Here,” says he, “is one place that entertains strangers, but it is not a reputable house; if thee wilt walk with me, I’ll show thee a better.” He brought me to the Crooked Billet in Water-street. Here I got a dinner; and, while I was eating it, several sly questions were asked me, as it seemed to be suspected from my youth and appearance, that I might be some runaway.

After dinner, my sleepiness return’d, and being shown to a bed, I lay down without undressing, and slept till six in the evening, was call’d to supper, went to bed again very early, and slept soundly till next morning. Then I made myself as tidy as I could, and went to Andrew Bradford the printer’s. I found in the shop the old man his father, whom I had seen at New York, and who, travelling on horseback, had got to Philadelphia before me. He introduc’d me to his son, who receiv’d me civilly, gave me a breakfast, but told me he did not at present want a hand, being lately suppli’d with one; but there was another printer in town, lately set up, one Keimer, who, perhaps, might employ me; if not, I should be welcome to lodge at his house, and he would give me a little work to do now and then till fuller business should offer.

The old gentleman said he would go with me to the new printer; and when we found him, “Neighbor,” says Bradford, “I have brought to see you a young man of your business; perhaps you may want such a one.” He ask’d me a few questions, put a composing stick in my hand to see how I work’d, and then said he would employ me soon, though he had just then nothing for me to do; and, taking old Bradford, whom he had never seen before, to be one of the town’s people that had a good will for him, enter’d into a conversation on his present undertaking and projects; while Bradford, not discovering that he was the other printer’s father, on Keimer’s saying he expected soon to get the greatest part of the business into his own hands, drew him on by artful questions, and starting little doubts, to explain all his views, what interests he reli’d on, and in what manner he intended to proceed. I, who stood by and heard all, saw immediately that one of them was a crafty old sophister, and the other a mere novice. Bradford left me with Keimer, who was greatly surpris’d when I told him who the old man was.

Keimer’s printing-house, I found, consisted of an old shatter’d press, and one small, worn-out font of English which he was then using himself, composing an Elegy on Aquila Rose, before mentioned, an ingenious young man, of excellent character, much respected in the town, clerk of the Assembly, and a pretty poet. Keimer made verses too, but very indifferently. He could not be said to write them, for his manner was to compose them in the types directly out of his head. So there being no copy, but one pair of cases, and the Elegy likely to require all the letter, no one could help him. I endeavor’d to put his press (which he had not yet us’d, and of which he understood nothing) into order fit to be work’d with; and, promising to come and print off his Elegy as soon as he should have got it ready, I return’d to Bradford’s, who gave me a little job to do for the present, and there I lodged and dieted, A few days after, Keimer sent for me to print off the Elegy. And now he had got another pair of cases, and a pamphlet to reprint, on which he set me to work.

These two printers I found poorly qualified for their business. Bradford had not been bred to it, and was very illiterate; and Keimer, tho' something of a scholar, was a mere compositor, knowing nothing of presswork. He had been one of the French prophets, and could act their enthusiastic agitations. At this time he did not profess any particular religion, but something of all on occasion; was very ignorant of the world, and had, as I afterward found, a good deal of the knave in his composition. He did not like my lodging at Bradford’s while I work’d with him. He had a house, indeed, but without furniture, so he could not lodge me; but he got me a lodging at Mr. Read’s, before mentioned, who was the owner of his house; and, my chest and clothes being come by this time, I made rather a more respectable appearance in the eyes of Miss Read than I had done when she first happen’d to see me eating my roll in the street.

Title Page: http://www.earlyamerica.com/lives/franklin/

Source: Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Boston: Houghton, 1917), 35–39.