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VOL. 39 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 24, 2015

Franklin’s Almanac was best-seller of its day

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Two weeks ago we left the 17-year-old Ben Franklin in the process of fleeing Boston. That was where he and his employer/brother, James, had literally come to blows.

At issue were the stated and unstated job requirements of assistant publisher of the “New England Courant.”

Ben would land in the city whose name famously means “brotherly love.” That’d be the place W.C. Fields made infamous with the remark “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” which was not meant as a compliment.

Taken in by a family named Read, with a daughter named Deborah, young Benjamin found work as an apprentice printer. Before long, he made the acquaintance of the governor of Pennsylvania.

Via this relationship, he managed to arrange his first trip to Europe, where he took up work in London’s printing trade circles. When he returned to the colonies, Deborah Read had gotten married.

A popular and humorous fellow, in whom many others saw great potential, Ben was able to take out a loan and start his own business. In a short period, he was overwhelmed with work – as a result of (what else?) government contracts.

In 1729, Franklin bought “The Pennsylvania Gazette” and soon turned it into the most successful paper in the colonies.

In addition to being the publisher, he also wrote much of the news, opinion pieces (under various pen names) and the occasional political cartoon.

In 1730, Ben married Deborah Read, whose husband had run away. She became his business partner, after a fashion. They ran a mercantile and a bookstore, in addition to the newspaper. Mrs. Franklin was an out-front person in sales and management.

170 years before Paul Harris started the Rotary Club in Chicago, Ben Franklin organized the Junto, a group of small business owners and workers who wanted to improve themselves and their surroundings in Philly.

In 1733, Franklin started “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” Almanacs were common in that day and time. In England, almanacs were second only to the Bible in annual sales. Franklin published his under the name Richard Saunders, purportedly a poor fellow in need of money to care for his carping wife.

Whereas other almanacs consisted pretty much of weather predictions, recipes and anecdotes, “Poor Richard’s” was filled with poems, aphorisms, proverbs, occasional math problems and lots of homespun humor.

It became an annual publication of unparalleled popularity, with print runs of 10,000 a year.

Many sayings associated with Poor Richard – “a penny saved is a penny earned” and “three may keep a secret if two of them are dead” – were hardly original, having circulated in Europe for years.

Here are a few of my favorites from the 1737 edition:

  • A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.
  • He that can take rest is greater than he that can take cities.
  • He that can compose himself is wiser than he that composes books.
  • After crosses and losses men grow humbler & wiser.
  • Well done is better than well said.

More on Ben (and Richard) in the weeks to come, though probably not next week.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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