When Benjamin Franklin was 17 years old, he made a bold decision that would not only alter the course of his life but that of an entire city.
The year was 1723. Franklin, exhibiting a rebellious streak, had just broken his indenture in Boston — then against the law — and set out by sea for Philadelphia, on his own for the first time.
The determined teenager was seeking work, following a tip that a printer in Philadelphia had recently lost his principal hand and thus might have an opening.
Another printer in town, Samuel Keimer, did in fact have a small job for Franklin upon his arrival: to print an elegy for that recently departed associate, a young man named Aquila Rose.
Was Franklin up to the task?
Experts say a young Franklin not only executed the job beautifully, but also displayed some daring design choices by including a woodcut with a skull-and-crossbones motif at the top of the broadside.
“Nobody ever used that,” said Carmen D. Valentino, a rare book and manuscript dealer in Philadelphia. “That’s the introduction of New England print culture to the Philadelphia area — by a runaway teenager!”
More important, he added, it meant Franklin would remain in Philadelphia, where he would later establish just about every major cultural institution in the city and play a pivotal role in shaping the formation of the United States.
“The kid got the job,” Valentino said, “and he went on to bigger and better things.”
In his lifetime, Franklin would, of course, print hundreds of items. But all copies of the Aquila Rose elegy, his first piece of work, were thought to be lost — until recently, when a single copy of the broadside was rediscovered by Valentino and subsequently acquired by the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries.
That copy is being displayed at the school’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center starting Tuesday, in honor of Franklin’s 311th birthday.
“It’s quite something to see,” said Mitch Fraas, curator of special collections at Penn Libraries. “This is the first time this sort of image of the broadside is being publicly displayed. … It’s a part of the Philadelphia story.”
The piece was so important to Franklin that he mentions it in his autobiography, penned in the 1780s. In a section about his very first week in Philadelphia as a fugitive teenager, Franklin noted that Keimer’s printing house “consisted of an old shatter’d press, and one small, wornout font of English, which he was then using himself, composing an elegy on Aquila Rose.”
Franklin “endeavored to put his press … into order fit to be worked with,” he wrote. Days later, after printing the elegy, Keimer gave him “another pair of cases, and a pamphlet to reprint, on which he set me to work.”
The rest is, well, history.
It is unclear how many copies were printed of the broadside, which probably would have been pasted up in Philadelphia’s public spaces, Fraas said. Only one would surface again in the 1820s, when Samuel Hazard, a Philadelphia historian with a keen interest in historical documents, went door-to-door searching for any remaining copies.
Hazard found a single copy and pasted it into his overflowing scrapbook, an eclectic collection of 18th- and 19th-century engravings and prints about three inches thick.
“From the outside, [the scrapbook] looks like nothing much,” Fraas said. “But inside was this treasure.”
That scrapbook then also vanished for nearly two centuries — until Valentino spotted it in a purchase he made in Philadelphia “a number of years ago.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Valentino said he preferred not to speak at length about details of the acquisition and simply stated that credit should go to the scholars at Penn Libraries.
“The joy was in the discovery and the second joy was finding an institution in Philadelphia that greatly appreciated it,” Valentino said. “Mr. Fraas and his colleagues realized what it was and they understood the historical importance of that item.”
And although the focus has been on the broadside, Hazard’s scrapbook also has “huge research potential,” Fraas said.
Among the pieces pasted inside is a rare woodcut from a 1780 German almanac depicting Benedict Arnold being mocked in effigy and marched through the streets. Another is a 1798 engraving showing a fight in Congress, with lawmakers wielding sticks and hot pokers. (That one, Fraas said, was probably a caricature.)
Fraas declined to comment on how much Penn Libraries paid for the broadside but said the university has long had an interest in acquiring Franklin’s work. After all, Franklin founded the Ivy League school in 1740, and he is considered the “spiritual founder” of its libraries. The Penn Libraries began in 1750 with a gift from Franklin, Fraas said. He would go on to contribute greatly to the library.
Today, the Penn Libraries have one of the largest collections of Franklin-printed books in the world. While Fraas could not estimate the monetary value of their holdings, he noted that items printed by Franklin can command a good market. For example, a manuscript he printed in 1752 — worn and missing a few pages — still sold at auction two years ago for $9,375, more than quadruple its estimate.
The broadside, along with Hazard’s scrapbook, will be on display through Feb. 10, a relatively short exhibit to help preserve the document.
However, in the spirit of Franklin, who gave away his patents and believed in the free distribution of knowledge, images of the broadside are available online for public use, Fraas said.
“It’s certainly out of copyright,” he said. “I’m always amazed and surprised and glad with how much Franklin resonates with faculty, students and researchers today.”