Young Ben Franklin and the Silence Dogood Letters
January 13, 2010 by Ben Edwards
I’ve always thought Benjamin Franklin was cool even back when I was in the sixth grade and chose to write a diary about his life for a school assignment. Thanks to my Mom for saving that little book (thirty-nine pages) and to my brother for rediscovering it recently. Brought back a lot of grade school memories – how I loved history and hated math! I didn’t know it back then but young Ben Franklin didn’t do real well in math either – more on that soon. The 10th son of a tallow chandler (candle and soap maker) Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1706. His parents were Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger. Josiah thought Ben was well suited to be a member of the clergy so he sent his youngest son to Boston Latin School, a grammar school, at the age of eight. Here, Ben rose from the middle of his class to the head of that same class in less than a year. Josiah began to have second thoughts though about the ministry as a profession for his son, fearing he would not be able to afford a college education for Ben at Harvard, which would be his eventual destination on that path. Josiah Franklin decided to remove Ben from Boston Latin and send him to a writing school operated by George Brownell. Here he could learn the writing and arithmetic skills required to prepare him for work in a colonial trade. Benjamin Franklin wrote the following words decades later in his autobiography about Mr. Brownell and that school experience: “Under him I acquired fair writing pretty soon, but I failed in the arithmetic, and made no progress in it.” The great inventor Benjamin Franklin didn’t like math as a kid either! At least I was in good company.
At the age of ten, Ben began working for his father at the candle-making shop known as the Sign of the Blue Ball located at the southeast corner of Hanover and Union streets. Here he cut wicks for candles, filled the molds, attended the shop and went on errands. Again from his autobiography, Franklin states “I disliked the trade, and had a strong inclination for the sea, but my father declared against it.” Young Ben worked in his father’s shop for two years. Seeing that his son was still not happy as a tallow chandler and concerned that Ben might run off to sea, Josiah took him for a walk around Boston one day so he could see other craftsmen at work hoping that another trade might catch Ben’s interest. Ben loved to read books and Josiah knew this so eventually he decided that working as a printer, apprenticed to his brother James, might be the best trade for Ben. In 1718, at the age of twelve, Ben signed papers stating that he would be bound to James Franklin as an apprentice until the age of twenty-one. Ben learned to set type, operate the press and sold printing in the streets of Boston. In August of 1721, James Franklin started printing a new weekly newspaper called the New-England Courant at his shop located off Queen Street in Dorset Alley. It was only the third newspaper in Boston at the time. By now Ben had become an excellent apprentice but he wanted to do more than set type, print the newspaper and deliver it to customers – he longed to write for it too. Feeling his brother would never let that happen, one day Ben came up with an idea and decided to act on it. He would write for the newspaper – but secretly.
In late March of 1722, sixteen-year-old Ben disguised his handwriting and crafted a letter using the pen name Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow, and slid it under the print shop door. His brother James was so impressed with the content of the letter that he decided to publish it in that week’s issue of the Courant. On April 2, 1722, the people of Boston first began to read the words of a woman who promised “once a Fortnight to present them with a short Epistle to add somewhat to their Entertainment”. Between April and October of 1722 Ben, as the charming and witty Silence Dogood, wrote a total of 14 letters to “the Author of the New-England Courant” on a variety of topics from love to manners to education. Picture what it must have been like for Ben, while working at the print shop, to overhear his brother James and others praising these letters! Imagine how Ben felt setting the type for something he wrote himself and printing it. In one of the letters Silence Dogood mentioned that as a widow, she would be open to suitors. Men actually wrote to the paper with offers of marriage! When Ben stopped writing his letters after six months, people missed them. At the end of the year James placed an ad in his paper asking if anyone could “give a true account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether dead or alive, married or unmarried”. After that, Ben told his brother that he had written the letters and, although people in town thought it was humorous, James was upset. Bad feelings between the two caused Ben to break his apprenticeship and sail to Philadelphia where he continued in the printing trade.
I began today’s post by mentioning my sixth grade school project and my admiration for Ben Franklin. There’s a bit more to the story. Many years after writing that diary of Franklin’s life, my college roommate and I, both of us with degrees in marketing, did something that Franklin himself would have appreciated – we became apprentice printers. Both of us learned the trade from the ground up and operated our own printing shop for twenty years. Although I started on the press, much like Franklin himself I gravitated toward the writing and marketing end of the business. We had a great staff, some outstanding equipment and a well established base of national clients before electing to sell the business in 2004. Today, when I work with students in the classroom and on Boston field trips, they enjoy hearing about the printing connection. They are also fascinated to learn that one of my ancestors, 36-year-old Captain Benjamin Edwards, walked the streets of Boston in 1722 during the time the Silence Dogood letters were published in the New-England Courant. I wonder if he ever bumped into sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin? Most of the students are familiar with the Silence Dogood letters thanks to their inclusion in the very popular movie National Treasure. In the film, clues hidden in the letters help lead Benjamin Franklin Gates closer to the most spectacular treasure in history. As a tribute to Mr. Franklin and Mrs. Dogood, the trailer for National Treasure appears below.
Video link: National Treasure Trailer (embedded above)
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy these similar posts:
- New Product: Paul Revere in Primary Sources
- Idea Starter: Sign the Declaration of Independence
- Teaching History While Walking in My Ancestors’ Footsteps
- A Fall Journey to Adams National Historical Park
- Resource for Teachers – Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers