Benjamin Franklin was only a teenager when he printed a skull-adorned elegy for the late poet Aquila Rose, written by printer Samuel Keimer. It was 1723, and he’d just arrived in Philadelphia. This broadside was the first piece he printed in the city, and it helped launch his career as a printer, and American revolutionary.
The University of Pennsylvania Libraries now has the only known copy of this broadside, an acquisition announced on the 311th anniversary of Franklin’s birth in Boston: January 17, 1706. The rare object is on view in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center at the Philadelphia university, which he later founded.
Mitch Fraas, curator of special collections at Penn Libraries, told Hyperallergic that these elegies with mourning borders were “not uncommon at all in New England,” but seldom seen elsewhere on the continent, including Philadelphia. Fraas noted that the morbid touch “shows Franklin bringing his training and cultural sensibilities to the mid-Atlantic.”
The broadside even makes a cameo in Franklin’s autobiography, as shared on the Penn Libraries blog:
Keimer’s printing-house, I found, consisted of an old shatter’d press … which he was then using himself, composing an Elegy on Aquila Rose … promising to come and print off his Elegy as soon as he should have got it ready.
“It’s a remarkable window on printshop practices and Franklin’s training,” Fraas explained. “If he did carve the woodcut border de novo, he would have done it nearly overnight — at least in a day or two — since we know the rough chronology of the printing of the Aquila Rose broadside. It’s pretty good work for a 17-year-old trying to make a big splash in a new city!”
Penn Libraries, in their post on the broadside, describes how the publication surfaced in the 1820s then disappeared, and was recently rediscovered by an antiquarian book dealer in a scrapbook kept by its 19th-century owner, before it was offered to Penn Libraries. The University of Pennsylvania already held his last printing works, so the acquisition deepened their tactile narrative of Franklin’s life.
Although he was a supreme polymath and diplomat, Franklin always considered himself a printer foremost, and had a belief in the freedom of the press that is especially relevant to recall now in this Trump administration of “alternative facts.” As this Founding Father once stated in the Pennsylvania Gazette, in his “Apology For Printers” that responded to criticism of his publishing of facts, “when truth and error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”
“The Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose” printed by Benjamin Franklin is on view through February 10 at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center at the University of Pennsylvania (3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia).