Unpublished Letters of Franklin to Strahan

A correspondence between the Founding Father and a fellow bookseller reveals much about eighteenth century printing—and Benjamin Franklin's character.

The allusion to the New England Coffee House in the next letter, as well as one to the Pennsylvania Coffee House in a previous communication, indicates the clannishness of the colonists when in London

Philada March 21, 1752.

Dear Sir,—I wrote to you in the Winter via New York, for a few Books, and sent a 2d Bill or 30£ Barbads Currency. The first is enclos’d. I hope it came to Hand Time enough for you to meet with the Gent’n and get the Money. He is Capt. of a Ship, and was to be found in the New England Coffee House, but probably may be gone before you receive this— They were mostly School Books, and I have mislaid the original List, so cannot send a Copy.

The Books for the Trenton Library arrived safe, and I believe gave Satisfaction.

I want yet vol. 17 of the Universal History in blue Covers, to compleat my Set.

My Wife & Children join in sincerest Wishes of Happiness to you & yours, with, Dear Sir,

Your obliged humb Sert
B Franklin.

Mrs. Franklin’s letter, introduced here, is interesting not only on account of the rarity of her letters, but as showing the character of a woman’s education in the colonies. She not only spells incorrectly, but is also careless as regards the uniform use of capitals with substantives then prevalent. It is known that Martha Washington was also but an indifferent speller. The f in the word “daughter” suggests that there were some in that day who pronounced the first syllable as in the word draught.

Madam,—I am ordered by my master to write for sum books for Salley Franklin  I am in hopes shee will be abel to write herselfe by the Spring

8 Sets of the Preceptor best Edit
8 Doz of Craxalls Fables
3 Doz of Bp Kenns manual for winchester School
1 Doz of Familiar Forms Latin and Eng Edit Ainsworth’s Dictionaries 4 Best
2 Dozn of select Tales and Fabels with prudential Maxims.
2 Doz Costalios Test.
Cole’s Dictionarys Lattin and Eng. 6 & haffe doz
3 Doz of Clarkes Cordery, 1 Boyles Pliny 2 vols 8vo.
6 Sets of Nature Displayed in 7 volumes 12°.
one good quorto Bibel with Custes (sic) bound net (sic) Calfe
1 Pueritia 1 Art of making common Salt. p Brownrigg

My Dafter gives her Duty to Mr. Strayhan and his Lady and her Compleyments to master Billey and all his Brothers and Sisters   My Son is Gon to Boston on a visit to his friends I Suppose  Mr. Franklin will write himselfe. Mr. and Mrs. Hall are very well thay have lost their other Childe shee lays in this winter   My Compleyments to Mr. Strayhan and all your Dear littel family  I am Dear Madam

Your Humbel Sarvant
Deborah Franklin

December 24 1751

Enclos’d is a Bill on Mr. Richard Manley for 30£ Barbadoes Currency. On the Change you will easily learn its Sterling value. If Mr. Manley refuses to pay it, give his letter to Mr. David Barclay,¹ who has a Power from Mrs. Middleton, & will compel him.

The next two letters give an entertaining suggestion of Franklin’s canny shrewdness in so far as relates to Mr. Harris: from a letter written at a later date, we are led to infer that Strahan was “taken in” by this promising candidate for holy orders, notwithstanding Franklin’s caution.

Philada Augt. 7, 1752

Dear Sir,—I wrote to you lately p Mesnard, and sent a bill for 50£ sterling, with a List of Books to be purchased for our Library: a Copy of which I shall send p another ship that sails in a few Days.

This is chiefly to recommend to you Mr. Matthias Harris, a Gentleman of Maryland, and a Friend of mine. As he will be entirely a Stranger in London, your Acquaintance and Advice on any Occasion may be of Use to him, and any Civilities you show him shall be esteemed and acknowledged as Favours to Dr Sir,

Your obliged humb Servt
B Franklin

Philada Augt. 8, 1752

Dear Sir,—I wrote to you the 20th of June p Mr. Sterling (who I hope is by this Time safe arrived in England) and sent you a Bill of 50£ sterlg with a List of Books to be procured for our Library. Enclos’d is a Copy, and the 2d Bill.

I wrote at the same time for a Pair of Globes of 6, or 8 Guineas Price; a concave Mirror of 12 Inches Diame, and a large Popple’s Map; sent you 9 Guineas, and promis’d a Bill p next ship, which I now accordingly send. It is 20£ sterlg drawn by Mary Stevens on Alexr Grant, Esqre. When paid, please to credit my Acct with it.

I have only the 1st vol. of Bower’s History of ye Popes. I hear a 2d is publish’d; please to send it bound, dark sprinkled, filleted & letter’d.

I wrote you a few Days since, recommending to your Notice an old Acquaintance, who is bound Home from Maryland, to obtain holy Orders. His Name Matthias Harris. Any Civilities you show him, as he will be an entire Stranger in London, I shall gratefully acknowledge—only I ought to acquaint you, that he has always had a strong Panchant to the buying of Books, and that some late Misfortunes have rendered it more inconvenient to him to gratify that Taste than it has been heretofore.

My Wife, Son and Daughter, desire to be respectfully remember’d to you, Mrs. Strahan & Master Billy. I am, Dear Sir,

Your most obliged humb Servt
B Franklin.

No apology is required for reproducing the letter of October 21, 1753, for its technical details, if somewhat dry, are of importance to those who would obtain precise information regarding the art of printing in the colonies in a century when such men as Bradford, Thomas, and Franklin made it an agent of freedom and power in America.

Philada Oct. 27, 1753

Dear Sir,—I have your Favour of June 27, and am quite surprised at the Conduct of Mr. Harris. He is returned to Maryland, as I hear, a Parson!

I have now received Boer’s 2d vol. and shall send to the Trenton Library to enquire after Crito and Delaresse—

The sume was 25£ to which I limited the Books, &c to be sent my Nephew Benjn. Mecom. But if you have sent to the Amount of 30£ ’t is not amiss.

I am now about to establish a small Printing Office in Favour of another Nephew, at Newhaven in the Colony of Connecticut in New England; a considerable Town in which there is a University, and a Prospect that a Bookseller’s Shop with a Printing House may do pretty well. I would therefore request you to bespeak for me of Mr. Caslon, viz

300 lb Long primer, with Figures and Signs sufficient for an Almanack.
300 lb Pica
300 lb English
100 lb Great Primer
60 lb Double Pica
50 lb Two line English
40 lb Two line Great Primer
30 lb Two line Capitals, & Flowers of different Founts
20 lb Quotations.

As Mr. Caslon has different Longprimers, Picas, &c., I beg the Favour of your Judgement to chuse & order the best.

To which add,

A compleat good new Press
2 pair Blankets
2 pair Ballstocks
Some Riglets, Gutter Sticks, Side Sticks, Quoins, &c.
3 pair Chases of different Sizes, the biggest Demi.
2 folio Galleys, each with 4 Slices—
4 Quarto Galleys—
A few Facs, Head and Tail Pieces, 3 or 4 of each—
2 Doz brass Rule.
2 good Composing Sticks—
2 Cags of Ink, one weak, the other strong—
With such another small Cargo of Books and Stationary as I desired you to send to Antigua, for a Beginning.

Mesnard sails in a Week or two, by whom I shall send you Bills for 100£ sterlg. But desire you would immediately on receipt of this bespeak the Letter, &c. that we may not be disappointed of having them p first ship to Newhaven or New York in the Spring. If sent to Newhaven, direct them to the care of Mr. Thomas Darling, Mercht there. If no Vessel for Newhaven, then to New York, to the Care of Mr. Parker, Printer.

Insure the whole.

The Furniture may be packed in the large Case that contains the Press.

If you can persuade your Pressmaker to go out of his old Road a little, I would have the Ribs made not with the Face rounding outwards, as usual, but a little hollow, or rounding inwards from end to end; and the Cramps made of hard east Brass, fix’d not across the Ribs, but long ways so as to slide in the hollow Face of the Ribs. The Reason is, that Brass and Iron work better together than Iron & Iron; such a Press never gravels; the hollow Face of the Ribs keeps the Oil better, and the Cramps bearing on a larger Surface do not wear as in the common Method. Of this I have had many Years Experience.

I need not desire you to agree with the Workmen on the most reasonable Terms you can; and as this Affair will give you Trouble, pray charge Commiss’s. I shall not think myself a Whit the less oblig’d.

My Compliments to Mrs. Strahan, Mast Billy, &c., in which my Wife & Children join with

Dr Sir,
Your most obliged humb Sert.
B. Franklin.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In