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Earthly Possessions


Finding Benjamin Franklin’s possessions scattered around Philadelphia is like a scavenger hunt for the soul of the city and a fun way to explore both the city and the man who has been called Philadelphia’s “greatest brand.” Many of Franklin’s things are in institutions he founded in Philadelphia, where he lived longer than any other place and where he died in 1790.

Franklin didn’t leave a Mount Vernon or a Monticello, so it’s hard to envision him living on Market Street, but it’s fitting to find items from cufflinks to chairs all around town.


Franklin papers abound, with over 2,150 books, pamphlets, letters, and other items owned by him in The Library Company of Philadelphia, which he founded in 1731. There’s something about seeing his shaving mirror at the Library Company that tops all of the books and papers, though. Personal objects have the power to liberate us from cartoon images of the fat, bespectacled genius and bring us closer to the complexity of the man.

Once he became wealthy, Franklin shopped. As Page Talbott writes in Benjamin Franklin, In Search of a Better World, “he was never too busy to direct his wife and daughter regarding fashion, interior decoration, and household purchases; and he took pleasure in purchasing European goods for their enjoyment back home.” Talbott notes that Franklin often acquired items due to his inquisitiveness, like fabric printed with the newest technology. What about Franklin’s frugality and “middle class” philosophy? “He could have certainly had finer things,” Talbott said.

Talbott brought many of Franklin’s possessions together as Chief Curator of The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary’s international traveling exhibition. “There are probably 10 desks out there that were said to have been owned by Franklin,” Talbott said in a phone interview, “…but very little specific documentation in Franklin’s papers. Items with the strongest provenance are ones that remained in the family. Many are still in private collections.

“People like to have associations with Franklin,” Talbott added. The Tercentenary’s online “Frankliana Database” shows a wide range of substantiation from an actual bill of sale to “There is no documentation of Franklin ownership; however…” Talbott and curator Constance Hershey used “good, old-fashioned research” to validate connections.

Let’s tour around Philadelphia to see where some of Franklin’s possessions are and what they tell us about this fascinating Philadelphian.

CHESS SET, American Philosophical Society (APS) Museum (Society founded by Franklin and friends in 1743):

Experts believe this pearwood set was made in France. It was donated to the APS by descendents of Franklin. Franklin wrote, “By playing chess, then, we may learn: foresight, circumspection, caution,” and more….

Franklin used his chess lessons on Parliament in squashing the Stamp Act. Writing incognito as “Homespun” in British newspapers, he manipulated public opinion, ridiculing the idea that Americans couldn’t get by without British tea. Franklin enumerated the advantages to Britain in giving Americans representation in Parliament. Examples of Franklin’s strategic thinking are legion.

SPIRIT BARREL (“punch keg”) and stand, Atwater Kent Museum: In the article “French Porcelain on Federal Tables,” Susan Detweiler writes, “…porcelain spirit-barrel given to Franklin by the Comte d”Artois, brother of Louis XVI… probably a product of the factory in Faubourg Saint-Denis…”

“His pleasing gaiety makes everybody in love with him, especially the ladies,” wrote Franklin’s grandson from France. With over a thousand bottles in his French wine cellar, Franklin worked hard and played hard.

DOUBLE-ACTING PNEUMATIC AIR PUMP, Independence National Historical Park:

Franklin bought this top-of-the-line British air pump for experiments with air pressure.

We know about Franklin’s experiments with electricity, but in true 18th-century fashion he loved all natural phenomena: air, water, steam, blood, etc. On the way home from London in 1775 he studied the Gulf Stream.

FLAT-TOP-DESK, 1772, University of Pennsylvania (founded by Franklin in 1749): Lynne Farrington, Curator of Printed Books at Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, said that this desk, documented in Franklin’s London journal of 1772, comes apart for traveling.

Franklin was, first and foremost, a writer. From early poetry through Poor Richard and the Autobiography, to the Albany Plan and the Articles of Confederation, Franklin spent time at desks. He wasn’t a poetic writer like Jefferson, but a clear, witty, often sardonic craftsman whose papers equal 47 fat volumes of print.

PORTRAIT OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN by David Martin, 1767, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: According to the Tercentenary database, a London associate of Franklin’s commissioned Franklin’s portrait from painter David Martin, and Franklin ordered this copy from Martin, sending it to Philadelphia in 1771. His likeness was later painted or sculpted by many famous artists.

Here’s a short list of famous people Franklin knew (besides the American Revolutionaries): Kings George III, Christian VII of Denmark, Louis XV, Louis XVI; Marie Antoinette, Cotton Mather, Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours, Marquis de Condorcet, Noah Webster, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Boswell.

Our famous polymath certainly inspires more categories of accomplishment (like inventor!). Fortunately, the Tercentenary site provides a great roadmap for seeing his things (www.benfranklin300.org/exhibit.htm) and making those connections. Even when the Franklin Court underground museum at National Independence Historic Park is reopened in 2012, with more of Franklin’s possessions together, it’s fun to explore Ben’s legacy all around Philadelphia.

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