Ben Franklin’s Books: The Library Company of Philadelphia Joins POP

Yesterday the Provenance Online Project (POP) added the first provenance images to the POP Flickr feed from The Library Company of Philadelphia, with many more to be released in the weeks ahead.  This is the first exciting step in adding images outside Penn, and just the beginning of partnerships with several fellow libraries that will begin contributing images to the project with the long term goal of making POP a provenance resource joining images from collections all over the world.  Bringing images from the Library Company collections together with the images already represented from Penn on POP has also already resulted in some exciting research finds, including the new identification of a Benjamin Franklin autograph in a book from the Kislak Center at Penn Libraries (more on this find in a minute). 

It is especially fitting that the Library Company is the first POP partner, since it is also the oldest cultural institution in the United States, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1730.  It is truly the original American library.  Many books in the Library Company collections have been there consistently since Franklin’s time, making the collection a fascinating resource for learning about the books that were read and used by early Americans, both famous and less well known.  It also means that the collections contain a wealth of wonderful examples of provenance marks by people from the colonial and revolutionary eras of American history.

The initial 60 images from the Library Company released on POP yesterday include several interesting marks in books by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).  For example, Franklin’s signature shown at the top of this blog post appears in the book, Logic, or the Art of Thinking (LCP Ia Nico 352.D):

Franklin notes in his autobiography that this book was a part of the reading in his formative years, citing as a book that he read when he was “16 years of age,” noting that “I read about this Time Locke on Human Understanding and the Art of Thinking by Messrs. du Port Royal,” suggesting that the Art of Thinking was an important part, paired with Locke, of Franklin’s early intellectual explorations.  (He also notes that his reading at this age included books on navigation, arithmetic, and geometry, but especially a book “by one ryon, recommending a Vegetable Diet that led to Franklin becoming a vegetarian). [1]

The words “given by” and a posessive ” ‘s” have been added in a different ink around the title page signature, possibly added by Franklin at the time when he gave the book to the library.  This peculiar addition of the posessive at the time of transfering the book to another also appears in a book at Penn, and it was, in part, because I had recently seen the Library Company signature in The Art of Logic that the signature in the Penn book was immediately noticeable.  Here again, for comparison, is the signature from the Library Company:


Franklin signature from the Library Company of Philadelphia. View image on POP

And here is the signature from Penn Libraries, which appears at the top of the front flyleaf of a book called The Gazetteer’s or Newsman’s Interpreter (Penn Libraries EC7 Ec423 692g 1744):


Franklin signature from Penn Libraries. View image on POP

The Penn Franklin signature appears at the top of a page also prominently inscribed by Charles Norris (1712-1766) part of a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family, and a known friend of Franklin’s.   Norris notes that he the book was “bo[ugh]t of B: Franklin, 1746 for 10 shillings.  He also notes the price, as he did in many of his books, in the top right hand corner of the page, where he has written “Pd. 10s”:

The Franklin signature in Penn’s book may have been overlooked in the past because it is surrounded by Norris’s marks from the same time period, but it has now been verified as Franklin’s handwriting  by careful comparison with several examples of Franklin’s signature and the expert opinion of Head Librarian at the Library Company, James N. Green, who has published a book and multiple articles on Franklin and his books and manuscripts.

There are several other interesting images of Franklin provenance from the Library Company now on POP.  This image is an example of the shelf mark that commonly appears in books from Franklin’s library, making it a useful model for identifying possible Franklin provenance in books (LCP Wing B5762 939 .Q.21):

The image below is an example of one of only two bindings known to show the Franklin family coat of arms on a book (In Gast 76994.O ):

This particular binding was made as a presentation copy from the author, René-Georges Gastellier, who also had an pen and ink drawing of the Franklin arms added to the book’s printed dedication to Franklin:

Gastellier was obviously going to great lengths to impress Franklin when he gave the American this copy of his book during Franklin’s time in Paris.  What the French man likely did not know is that, not only did Franklin himself hardly ever use or refer to this coat of arms, but that the primary use that the Franklin family had made of the device was as an advertising gimick.  Franklin’s immediate family were soap and tallow makers who  stamped the crest on the soap they sold to make the product look more upscale.  So, this fancy binding would likely have reminded Ben more of soap promotions than of pretensions to a noble family history.

It appears Franklin had some degree of pride in the mark as one applied to soap, however.  In a letter to his sister, Jane Mecom, sent from New York and dated May 30, 1757, he writes concerning his nephew, Peter’s, entry into the family soap business, but says, “I would not have him put the Franklin arms on it” because then the young soap maker’s product would “look too much like counterfeit” of the crown soap made by more experienced family members.  Franklin is encouraging of Peter’s endeavours, saying,  “in a little time it will acquire as good a character as that made by his late uncle, or any other person whatever.” (Franklin’s letter can be found online here.)

Finally, two inscriptions on the opening page of a pamphlet on the topic of Animal Magnetism provide evidence of both Franklin’s ownership of the book and his sense of humor. Franklin had originally written a witty remark to the right of the engraving at the top of the page depicting a coat of arms with three birds, representing the academic group responsible for the treatise.  As we can see, this inscription was cut off when the pamphlet was rebound, together with others (LCP Am 1784 Fra Af. 405.3):

Franklin’s dedication to his joke was such that he then re-wrote it on the bottom margin of the page, where we can discover his comment: “It is remarkable that the arms of the Faculty above should be three Ducks, with Herbs in their Mouths to prevent their pronouncing the motto, Quack, Quack, Quack.”

It is an excellent example of Franklin’s lively mind, dedicated as much to reading works of logic, politics, and mathematics, as to having the last laugh in the margins of a book.

To see these and more examples of provenance from the Library Company, visit this album on the POP Flickr feed.  And look for many more fascinating images from their collections to be released on Flickr in the weeks to come!

Many thanks to Jim Green, Librarian at the Library Company of Philadelphia, for all his help in selecting the initial Library Company provenance marks to be included on POP and for sharing the many marvelous stories behind these marks. 

More information about Franklin’s books and his reading and writing practices can be found both in former Library Company Librarian, Edwin Wolf’s catalog: Wolf, Edwin and Kevin J. Hayes. The library of Benjamin Franklin.  Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society/Library Company of Philadelphia, 2006. and in Green’s book with Penn professor, Peter Stallybrass:  Green, James N. and Peter Stallybras, Benjamin Franklin: Writer and Printer, New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006.  

[1] Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Ed. Joyce E. Chaplin. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012, pp. 20-21.

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1 Response to Ben Franklin’s Books: The Library Company of Philadelphia Joins POP

  1. Ben Franklin was a legend damn


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