Ben Franklin's Print Shop, a park ranger
demonstrates the process of inking and printing --
in this case, appropriately enough, a Declaration of
Independence. Franklin is connected to many of the
most popular sites in Philadelphia, Pa
— Wait. Isn’t that …?
was just entering Independence Hall Park in Philadelphia
when the man strode past me, too quickly to see much more
than a blur. An anachronism, this elderly gentleman in his
heavy tan tailcoat and silver-buckled shoes. But familiar,
hair was the giveaway: bald on top, long and silver on the
sides. The hair, and those knickers – tres Colonial. I
picked up my pace, hoping to get a glimpse of his face for
confirmation. Though really, who else could it be —
especially right here, outside Independence Hall — but
really strange thing about the scene was that nobody else
seemed to notice him. Nobody pointed or ran up to him for
a selfie. Nobody stopped what they were doing to register
his presence at all.
again, maybe everyone else was just used to Ben’s
presence. This is, after all, Philadelphia, where Benjamin
Franklin is ubiquitous. There are almost as many Ben
Franklins here as there are Elvises in Vegas. Franklin had
his hands on so many aspects of life in Colonial times
that you will find his fingerprints all over town today.
can’t swing a kite in Philadelphia today without hitting
something he influenced.
The Philadelphia Free Library, the first public library in
The B. Free Franklin Post Office, where Ben, as postmaster
general, laid the groundwork for a nationwide mail system.
The 101-foot-tall "Bolt of Lightning," sculpture
by Isamu Noguchi, a paean to the man as scientist.
Bolt," by the way, is near the Ben Franklin Bridge,
just one of many major features of Philadelphia’s
infrastructure named for him. I’d call him a favorite
son, but he wasn’t born there. He arrived in 1722 at the
age of 17, having run away from his home and family in
Boston, ready to begin a new life as a printer.
of course, he did. Franklin had only two years of formal
schooling, but during his lifetime received honorary
degrees from Yale and Harvard, Oxford and St. Andrews. By
the time he was 42, he declared that he’d made enough
money, and not knowing how much longer he would live, he
retired from full-time printing to spend more time on his
experiments with electricity.
did a lot more than fly kites, however. He invented such
far-flung gadgets as lightning rods, swim flippers, the
glass armonica and (because he needed them) bifocals. He
helped establish Philadelphia’s Quaker Meeting House and
supported the Mikveh Israel Jewish congregation. He began
the academy that grew into the University of Pennsylvania;
and with Dr. Thomas Bond started Philadelphia Hospital.
this plus the Founding Father gig.
can learn about the multifaceted Mr. F. at the museum that
bears his name, in the square that bears his name. The
Benjamin Franklin Museum reopened last September after a
two-year, $24 million renovation. Under the auspices of
the National Park Service, both the technology and the
museum’s mission have been updated. The free-flowing
museum aims to present all aspects of Franklin’s life
(citizen, printer, inventor, author, statesman and
philosopher) and organizes the exhibitions according to
different traits — "Ardent & Dutiful,"
"Ambitious & Rebellious," "Motivated to
Improve," "Curious & Full of Wonder"
and "Strategic & Persuasive." The museum
wants to present Franklin the man, not the myth.
museum exhibits about 30 of the artifacts in its
collection, including Franklin’s beloved chess set. He
was passionate about the game and would play deep into the
night — limited only by his supply of candles, as one
is a kind of chess," Franklin once wrote, "in
which we often have Points to gain, & Competitors or
Adversaries to contend with … The game is so full of
events … that one is encouraged to continue the contest
to the last, in hopes of Victory from our own skill."
outside in Franklin Court, you will also find the United
States Postal Service Museum and the Franklin Print Shop,
for more information and demonstrations about his work in
both those fields.
most obvious structure in the court, however, is the
54-foot steel Ghost House, outlining the space where
Franklin’s house once stood.
walk away from Franklin Court with a pretty good grounding
in Franklin the man.
took a different approach to learning about Franklin —
by exploring the city he’d adopted as his home. It wasn’t
even a conscious choice. I was just doing my usual
sightseeing — overdosing on culture and historical
sights — and began to notice how often Ben Franklin’s
name came up. Soon, I had gathered so much information on
the man, I felt like I knew him.
best of all, I was usually standing right where old Ben
had stood, looking at something he’d dreamed up,
organized, demanded or fought for. From his mind, to real
life. Myths can’t do that, can they?
are some of my favorite ways to follow in the footsteps of
Ben Franklin in Philadelphia.
love Elfreth’s Alley, a narrow cobblestone street in Old
City. I make a beeline for it every time I visit Philly
— kind of a drunken beeline since it always takes me a
few attempts and turnarounds to find it.
named after a blacksmith and landowner who bought land and
built houses there in 1702, is said to be the oldest
continually occupied residential street in America. It was
nearly razed on two occasions in the 1960s and ‘70s. But
locals got together and not only saved it, but got it
listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
is a rare example of a preserved working-class
neighborhood — preserved over a span of 300 years,
actually. The compact, modest houses on the street were
occupied by craftsmen and tradesmen who would set up shops
on the first floor and live on the second.
most of the 32 houses are privately owned, and the
occupants are required to maintain them — as well as
tolerate the presence of curious visitors day and night.
The houses were built from 1728 to 1836, and their facades
offer a wealth of insight into the changes in society, the
economy and the change from handmade crafts to the
you look carefully at the facades, too, you’ll discover
Benjamin’s contribution to that progress.
the second-floor windows, you’ll notice a sort of black
metal projection that looks like an open book. It’s
actually two angled mirrors, and it’s called a busybody.
Franklin came up with the gadget so people could see who
was knocking at their door — or even coming down the
street — without having to climb down several sets of
may also notice an iron plaque on the facade bearing a
symbol like four hands forming a diamond or a tower with a
hose. These are fire marks, showing that the occupant
purchased fire insurance for his house and if there were
ever a fire on the street, the insurance company’s fire
department should try to put it out.
work, again. Franklin started the Union Fire Co., the
first volunteer fire department in the Colonies, in 1736.
In 1751 Franklin organized the first insurance company,
the Philadelphia Contributorship for the Insurance of
Houses from Loss by Fire.
down Second Street, two blocks from Elfreth’s Alley, in
a restored 1902 firehouse, you can learn all about the
history of firefighting at the Fireman’s Hall Museum.
Owned by the city, the museum is operated by the
Philadelphia Fire Department, a direct descendant of the
volunteer group Franklin organized. Its collection is
considered one of the best in the country and includes
everything from leather buckets used by the bucket brigade
to a vintage hand-pump you can try yourself.
insurance company, too, remains alive and well and has
expanded its business to include modern-day insurables. It
has not forgotten its roots, however. And there’s a
small museum at its headquarters with original documents
and contracts that Franklin not only helped compose, but
printed as well.
you leave the Elfreth’s Alley area, you might want to
stop in at Christ Church on Arch Street between Fourth and
Fifth streets. Here Franklin, his wife and children
worshiped on Sundays from Pew 70 (yes, it was theirs). The
Franklins were laid to rest at the church’s burial
ground on Arch Street. You can literally pay your respects
there: His grave is always covered with pennies from
skipping the obvious Ben-related sites that were central
to the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the
Constitution. You’re going to go there anyway. Instead,
head toward the Parkway named after our pal, where you’ll
find the Franklin Institute.
are a few Ben connections here. No, he wasn’t the
founder; he was just the inspiration for this interactive
museum, which began as a scientific research institution
one thing, it is home to the Benjamin Franklin National
Memorial — an imposing, 20-foot marble likeness of
Franklin in a suitably imposing setting: the institute’s
soaring rotunda. In 1972, Congress designated it the
official national memorial to Franklin. Visitors can also
watch "Benjamin Franklin Forever," a 3½-minute
multimedia show about the ways Franklin had an impact on
the world — in his roles as international citizen,
statesman, civic leader and scientist.
institute also has some Franklin-related artifacts on
display including the musical instrument he created, the
glass armonica. In his travels as a diplomat in Europe, he
took notice of a new form of entertainment: musicians
would play a set of "singing" or musical
glasses. Intrigued by the beauty of the sound, he invented
an instrument made of blown glass and created that same
sort of sound. But he went further than the glass-player,
enabling his instrument to play chords and melodies.
I have one more site to highlight — the rest (well, as
many as we can fit) are in the accompanying list. I wanted
to end as I did with my last visit to Philly, at the
American Philosophical Society museum and library because
it left me with the most meaningful insight into Franklin’s
talent, his genius.
was a surprise because I’d gone there to learn about
Thomas Jefferson. I guess I should have mentioned this
earlier: Ben was never my favorite Founding Father. If I
bought a T-shirt, it would be the one with Jefferson on
I heard that the American Philosophical Society was
opening the first of a three-exhibition series on
Jefferson’s life and times, I put it at the top of my
list of things to see.
didn’t know much about the society; I was intrigued just
by the name. And as I started reading up on its
background, what did I discover? Ben was its founder. He
and some friends created the society in 1743 to
"promote useful knowledge ... to the benefit of
mankind," Franklin explained.
was a time of enlightenment. When science and scientific
investigation were changing the way we looked at our
world. In Ben’s time, nature was the biggest area of
scientific investigation; it was referred to as natural
explains (sort of) the "philosophical" in the
American Philosophical Society.
imagine a bunch of bearded dudes with elbow patches
endlessly debating questions with no answers. Members were
movers and shakers, people who observed, discovered,
contributed to the world’s knowledge. Many of the
Founding Fathers were members, as were writers,
craftspeople, architects. More recent members have
included Toni Morrison, Yo-Yo Ma, I.M. Pei, Sandra Day O’Connor
and Nelson Mandela.
much-anticipated "Jefferson, Philadelphia, and the
Founding of a Nation" hadn’t opened yet, but the
library, which is open every weekday, always has a small
exhibition in its lobby.
only was there an exhibition, but it dealt with animals.
"No Taxonomy Without Representation" examined
four areas in which science and society think and gain
knowledge about animals. There were four small exhibition
cases, but what they held was big time: an illustrated
page from Meriwether Lewis’ journal, with a sketch of a
white salmon trout in the center of descriptive prose
written around it; a page from Charles Darwin’s
manuscript of "Origin of the Species"; an
Audubon watercolor of a groundhog; and in a case with a
sketch of a wild turkey, a letter by Franklin lamenting
that it was not chosen as the country’s national bird.
library is home to 10 million manuscripts, 250,000 volumes
and bound periodicals, and thousands of maps and prints.
It holds first editions of Isaac Newton’s
"Principia," Darwin’s "Origin of
Species," the elephant folio of Audubon’s
"Birds of North America," a majority of Franklin
imprints and a significant portion of Franklin’s
hadn’t gotten to see Jefferson, but this was no booby
next week the Jefferson exhibition opened, and I was there
on opening day. The museum itself is quite small, the
space divided into several small rooms jammed with rare
photos, original letters, and a lot of detailed
information on the planning that led to the American
handwritten copy of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration
of Independence is the star archive. The fragile document
was specially framed so you can see both sides of it.
Cross-outs, notes in the margins and alterations to the
text show the changes and edits.
thought, perhaps, that the editing was by Jefferson
himself, fixing up his first draft. But a docent explained
that the annotations were made by Richard Henry Lee, a
member of the Continental Congress from Virginia, after
the declaration was finally adopted.
sent a copy of his first draft to Franklin, for whom he
had great respect. Franklin, at heart a newspaperman, was
an adept editor and used a light touch on Jefferson’s
words. His changes were small, yet masterful.
notable was this small change from Jefferson’s original
hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all
men are created equal …"
change: "We hold these truths to be self-evident;
that all men are …"
one small change, he removed the contentious issue of
religion from the table and recast it as a matter of
rational thinking. The point is so self-evident, only an
irrational person could object.
knew words. He also understood the priorities of the
Colonies as they were poised to become a country free to
shape its own future.
knew how to deal with opponents, and obstacles. He made
his moves matter.
of like chess.
was right again.
YOU GO ...
the Delaware River into Pennsylvania via the Benjamin
Franklin Bridge, and you’ve already experienced the
influence Franklin has had on Philadelphia. Here are some
City Tavern: Originally built in 1772 and declared the
"most genteel tavern in America" when John Adams
visited in 1774, it burned in the mid-19th century. It was
restored and reopened in time for the bicentennial in
1976. The restaurateur Walter Staib, host of the
Emmy-winning "A Taste of History," took over in
1994 and has re-created the old tavern atmosphere with
costumed servers and a Colonial-themed menu (including
beers). 215-413-1443; citytavern.com.
Independence Hall: Here, Franklin signed the Declaration
of Independence and helped draft the Constitution.
Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth streets;
Carpenters’ Hall: Home of the First Continental
Congress, it was once the site of Franklin’s Library
Company and the American Philosophical Society, two
organizations founded by Franklin. 320 Chestnut St.;
University of Pennsylvania: Unlike other schools of the
time, whose purpose was to educate the clergy, Franklin’s
Publick Academy of Philadelphia prepared students for
business and public service. 3451 Walnut St.;
Franklin Square: One of the five original squares in
William Penn’s "greene countrie towne."
Recently transformed into a playground with a carousel,
mini-golf and a food stand. Sixth and Vine streets;
Pennsylvania Hospital: Ben was among the group that
established what was, in 1751, the first hospital in
America. Guided tours offered 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday
and Friday. Maps (suggested donation $4) are available for
self-guided tours, which are permitted on weekdays. Eighth
and Spruce streets; 215-829-3000; pennmedicine.org/pahosp.
Free Quaker Meeting House: Franklin, a firm believer in
religious freedom, provided financial support for this and
other houses of worship. Fifth and Arch streets;
The Library Company of Philadelphia: Books were rare and
costly in the Colonies, so Franklin established a library
that people could subscribe to and borrow from. Today, it
is a research library. 1314 Locust St.; 215-546-3181;
Bartram’s Garden: Franklin supported botanists John and
William Bartram in their specimen-gathering expeditions.
They, in turn, named a tree after him: Franklinia
alatamaha. 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard;
Masonic Temple: Franklin joined the Freemasons in 1731 and
was elected grand master three years later. The museum
includes Franklin’s masonic collar and a sculpture of
him at the printing press. A larger than life portrait is
on display in one hallway. 1 N. Broad St.; 215-988-1900;
info on sites mentioned in the main article:
Benjamin Franklin Museum: Part of Franklin Court, which
also includes the Printing Office and the Ghost House.
Entrance to the courtyard is from Market or Chestnut
streets, between Third and Fourth streets. 215-965-2305,
Christ Church: Second and Market streets; 215-922-1695;
Christ Church Burial Ground: Along with Ben and his wife,
Deborah, many other historic figures are buried here. Arch
Street between Fourth and Fifth streets; 215-922-1695;
American Philosophical Society: 104-105 S. Fifth St.;
Fireman’s Hall Museum: 147 N. Second St.; 215-923-1438;
The Franklin Institute (and Benjamin Franklin National
Memorial): 222 N. 20th St.; 215-448-1200; fi.edu.
"Bolt of Lightning ... a Memorial to Benjamin
Franklin": Monument Plaza, foot of Benjamin Franklin
Bridge, Sixth and Vine streets.
INFO: Visit Philadelphia offers a Walk in the Footsteps of
Benjamin Franklin itinerary on its website,
visitphilly.com. You can also find everything you ever
wanted or needed to know to plan a trip to the city.