Today I want to talk about Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was a hugely famous scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat. But before he flew any kites in thunderstorms, invented the glass armonica or signed the United States Declaration of Independence, he was famous for something else. Franklin, like his brother before him, worked in the printing trade. On this day in 1732, he published the first edition of his ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack’ under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders.
Almanacs were once a very popular sort of annual publication. At one time, the only book that outsold them was the Bible. They were full of significant information about the coming year such as major holidays or the phases of the moon. If they were aimed at a particular section of society, such as farmers or sailors, they would contain information that was relevant to them. Almanacs had been around for hundreds of years and, in medieval times, their writers saw little difference between predicting the movements of the sun, moon and stars and predicting what that might foretell about the future, so they often did that too. Then, in the seventeenth century comic almanacs started to appear that parodied these horoscopes.
Franklin’s almanac opens with a forward from its supposed author, Richard Saunders. He explains that he has written it because his wife thinks he is wasting his time gazing at the stars, and that if he didn’t do something profitable with his time she was going to burn all his books and scientific instruments. He goes on to say he would have written one years ago, if it weren’t for the fact that his good friend Titus Leeds always wrote one. But now, he says, the obstacle is removed because he has seen in the stars that Titus Leeds will die on October 17th at 3.29pm. He then tells us that Mr Leeds disagrees with his prediction and states that he will, in fact, die on October 26th. They have argued about this for nine years. He then entreats his readers to buy next year’s almanac to find out who was right.
The following year, Poor Richard thanks everyone very much for their support. His wife has bought a cooking pot and a warm nightdress and he has a very good second-hand coat. He then explains that he has been unable to find out whether Titus Leeds is dead yet as he has been rather ill himself. In later editions of his Almanac, Franklin went on to claim that Leeds had died, despite protestations from the real Titus Leeds to the contrary. He said that this man was someone else, pretending to be Leeds. Titus Leeds died in 1738, leading Franklin the applaud the imposter for ending his ruse. It was all a bit silly, but it was the sort of thing that kept people buying his almanac year after year. Franklin published a Poor Richard’s Almanack annually for twenty-five years.
Franklin’s almanac is the source of most of the pithy little sayings that come up in a quote search, from the well known ‘God helps them that help themselves’ or ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.’ to the useful observations ‘Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead’ or ‘Fish and visitors stink in three days’. Then there is the plain mysterious ‘ Men and melons are hard to know.’
It’s been good to find out that this towering figure from American history had a more frivolous side. I also found out that he had form when it came to writing under a pseudonym. As a teenager, he worked as a typesetter in his brother’s printing business. He really wanted to publish something, but his brother wouldn’t let him. So he started writing fortnightly letters under the name of Silence Dogood, a middle aged widow, who says she will not bore anyone by telling her life story, but then goes on to do so, in some detail. Fourteen of the letters were published and Mrs Dogood received marriage proposals from readers. His Brother was pretty mad when he found out it was Benjamin who had written them.