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From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians—a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator.
Making use of an astonishing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore brings Jane Franklin to life in a way that illuminates not only this one extraordinary woman but an entire world.
She learned to bake and to roast, to mend and to scrub. She learned to sew and to knit. She helped her mother tend the garden. She learned to dye.1 She helped her father in the shop, doing the work that her brother hated, “cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, and the Molds for cast Candles.”2
What more could she study? A Boston newspaper printed “A Dialogue between a thriving Tradesman and his Wife about the Education of Their Daughter.” The wife wishes to send the girl to school. The husband refuses, telling her:
Prithee, good Madam, let her first be able,
To read a Chapter truly, in the Bible,
That she may’nt mispronounce God’s People, Popel,
Nor read Cunstable for Constantinople;
Make her expert and ready at her Prayers,
That God may keep her from the Devils Snares;
Teach her what’s useful, how to shun deluding,
To roast, to toast, to boil and mix a Pudding.
To knit, to spin, to sew, to make or mend,
To scrub, to rub, to earn and not to spend,
I tell thee Wife, once more, I’ll have her bred
To Book’ry, Cook’ry, Thimble, Needle, Thread.3
That Jane Franklin learned to write as well as she did was a twist of fate: she was her brother’s sister. Mostly, she learned other things. She was bred to bookery and cookery, needle and thread.
She learned how to make soap. She once wrote down the family recipe. In a wooden box with a hole bored in the bottom and set over a tub filled with bricks, soak eighteen bushels of ashes and one bushel of lime with water. Leach lye. Then, in a copper pot, boil the lye with wax—“won third mirtle wax two thirds clean tallow the Greener the wax the beter,” she wrote—and keep it from boiling over “by flirting the froith with a scimer.” Stir in salt. “Be carefull not to Put two much salt in it will make it Britle.” Line a mold with a cloth (“not too coars”) and pour in the boiling soap: “keep it smoth on the top take care to let your Frame stand on a Level let care be taken when it is in that it Is not Jogd.” Let it set overnight, and in the morning cut it “with a small wier fixed to a round stick at Each End.” Use a gauge to make sure each cake is of equal weight and, if not, “Pare it fitt.”4
She lived a life of confinement. She never learned to ride. (“I hant courage to ride a hors,” she once admitted.)5 If she left the city, it was with her mother, by boat, to visit the Folgers on Nantucket, where she played with her cousin Keziah.6 She spent her Sundays at the Old South Meeting House, listening to men’s voices thundering from the pulpit. She ran errands, to the shops, to the docks, and to James’s printing house, to visit her brothers. She visited her married sisters and helped care for their children, or they for her: some of her nieces and nephews were older than she was. She loved best her niece Grace.7
Most days she spent at home, close to the fire. She was curious, and she could be untoward. But she was dutiful. She was pared to fit.
A girl’s apprenticeship was girlhood itself. A boy’s apprenticeship was a trade. In 1717, when Jane was five, her brother James came back from England and set up a printing shop in Boston, “over against the Prison in Queen Street.”8 It was a godsend. Here at last was a trade for Benjamin, the bookish boy too poor to go to Harvard. In 1718, he became his brother’s apprentice: a printer’s devil. He moved into a room above James’s shop. Benny was twelve; Jenny was six.
The best part of his apprenticeship, Franklin always said, was the chance it gave him to read. At the Blue Ball, he had only ever found in his father’s library a few books he liked: Plutarch’s Lives, “a Book of Defoe’s called an Essay on Projects and another of Dr. Mather’s call’d Essays to do Good.” But working at a printer’s shop was almost as good as working at a bookshop. “I now had Access to better Books,” he remembered. “An Acquaintance with the Apprentices of Booksellers, enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night.”9
Jane Colman read all night long, too. Her father’s house was stocked with books. She read “all the English Poetry, and polite Pieces in Prose, printed and Manuscripts in her Father’s well furnish’d Library, and much she borrow’d of her Friends and Acquaintance. She had indeed such a Thirst after Knowledge that the Leisure of the Day did not suffice, but she spent whole Nights in reading.”10
Jane Franklin enjoyed neither the leisure of a minister’s daughter nor the library of a printer’s apprentice. What books she read were what books she found in the house of a poor soap boiler. “My Father’s little Library consisted chiefly of Books in polemic Divinity,” her brother had written. Her world of learning widened so far, and no farther.
Her brother resolved to be his own tutor. Determined to become a good writer, he trained himself by reading. The boy who wanted to become the author of his own life taught himself to write by copying the prose style he found in the Spectator. “I thought the Writing excellent, and wish’d if possible to imitate it,” he explained. He read an essay, wrote an abstract, and then rewrote the argument from the abstract, to see if he could improve on the original. Then he rewrote the essays as poems since, he thought, “nothing acquaints a Lad so speedily with Variety of Expression, as the Necessity of finding such Words and Phrases as will suit with the Measure, Sound and Rhime of Verse, and at the same Time well express the Sentiment.” He wrote rules, pledging himself to brevity (“a multitude of Words obscure the Sense”), clarity (“To write clearly, not only the most expressive, but the plainest Words should be chosen”), and simplicity: “If a Man would that his Writings have an Effect on the Generality of Readers, he had better imitate that Gentleman, who would use no Word in his Works that was not well understood by his Cook-maid.” His cook-maid . . . or his little sister.
“Prose Writing has been of great Use to me in the Course of my Life,” Franklin knew, “and was a principal Means of my Advancement.” He would write his way up, and out.11
Reading, he grew skeptical of his family’s faith. The more books he read, the less he believed the Bible. “I was scarce 15,” he remembered, “when, after doubting by turns of several Points as I found them disputed in the different Books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself.”
He discovered, too, that he liked to argue. “My indiscrete Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist.” He especially liked to debate, like “University Men,” with “another Bookish Lad in the Town, John Collins by Name.” They once debated “the Propriety of educating the Female Sex in Learning, and their Abilities for Study.” Young Collins “was of Opinion that it was improper” and that girls “were naturally unequal to it.” Franklin disagreed: “I took the contrary Side, perhaps a little for Disputes sake.”12
In crafting his argument, Franklin leaned on Defoe’s Essay on Projects, one of the few books in his father’s library that he liked. Defoe had proposed the establishment of an “Academy for Women”: “I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous Customs in the world, consider- ing us as a Civilised and a Christian Countrey, that we deny the advantages of Learning to Women.” Like Astell, Defoe regretted the frivolousness of girls’ education: “Their youth is spent to teach them to Stitch and Sew, or make Bawbles. They are taught to Read indeed, and perhaps to Write their Names, or so; and that is the heighth of a Woman’s Education.” His Academy for Women was to embrace every subject: “To such whose Genius wou’d lead them to it, I wou’d deny no sort of Learning.”13
But, for all his Defoe, Franklin didn’t win the argument. Collins, he admitted, “was naturally more eloquent, had a ready Plenty of Words, and sometimes . . . bore me down more by his Fluency than by the Strength of his Reasons.” They parted without settling the question and continued the debate by letters. “Three or four Letters of a Side had pass’d,” Franklin wrote, “when my Father happen’d to find my Papers, and read them. Without entering into the Discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the Manner of my Writing, observ’d that tho’ I had the Advantage of my Antagonist in correct Spelling and pointing (which I ow’d to the Printing House) I fell far short in elegance of Expression, in Method and in Perspicuity.”14
Spelling and pointing (punctuating) were genteel accomplishments; they date to the rise of printing. People used to spell however they pleased, even spelling their own names differently from one day to the next. Then came the printing press, and rules for printers: how to spell, how to point. More books meant more readers; more readers meant more writers. But only the learned, only the lettered, knew how to spell.
Franklin was a better speller than his friend Collins, and he could point better, too, but Collins proved a better debater. Be more precise, Josiah urged his son. Be plainer. On the question itself, he did not venture an opinion.
While Benny was improving his writing by arguing about the education of girls, Jenny was at home, boiling soap and stitching. Quietly, with what time she could find, she did more. She once confided to her brother, “I Read as much as I Dare.”15
1. “With all my own art & good old unkle Benjamins memorandoms I cant make them good colors,” JFM wrote to her brother in 1766, suggesting that, at least at that point, she had his book of memorandums, or recipes. JFM to BF, November 8, 1766. (And she certainly owned his books of poetry, one of which is inscribed with her name.) The original of the recipe book is either lost or in private hands; all that survives is a transcription. See “Dyeing and Coloring” in “Commonplace-Book of Benjamin Franklin (1650–1727),” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 10 (1907): 206–25.
2. BF, Autobiography, 6.
3. “A Dialogue between a thriving Tradesman and his Wife about the Education of Their Daughter,” Boston Evening-Post, December 10, 1744.
4. She wrote the recipe down twice. (BF lost it; see Van Doren, Letters, 129.) JFM, “For Making Crown Soap,” 1772, in Letters, 130–32. And JFM, “Recipe for Crown Soap,” 1786, PBF, unpublished. I’m not certain that the dates assigned to these recipes are especially plausible. The first seems to have been written down after the death of John Franklin, to whom JFM must have been referring when she wrote, “My Brother in His Life time tould me it could not be conveyd by Recipt” (that is, that you couldn’t write down this recipe; you needed to learn by doing). The original is Jane Franklin Mecom, Recipe for Crown Soap, n.d., Hays Calendar IV, 376, Franklin Papers, vol. 58, folio 19. Van Doren credited the invention of crown soap to John Franklin, without any substantiation. But as Huang has remarked, there is every reason to believe that Josiah, who trained his son, was involved in perfecting the soap (“Franklin’s Father Josiah,” 43–45). And as Lemay argues, Abiah must have been involved (Life of BF, 1:56) and it’s highly probable that Jane was intimately involved as well, which would also account for her subsequent frustration at her sons’ being kept out of the soap business. Jane herself gave some credit to her brother John. In one letter to Franklin, she refers to their brother John as “the Inventor” of crown soap, but in the same letter she explains that he had nearly as much difficulty getting it right as she did. “The Labour is Grate, & the operation critical, the Exact knolidg not to be attained without Expearance, my Brother Him self tould me it workd some times not to his mind in a way he could not account for” (JFM to BF, December 29, 1780). When sending her own soap to Franklin in 1786, and apologizing that it wasn’t exactly as fine as she had hoped, she wrote, “I beleve my Brother John Perfectly understood the Exact proportion that would do best” (JFM to BF, May 29, 1786). Yet this letter does not place John so far above herself, as a soap boiler; instead, it substantiates an argument that she and her brother knew very well how to make soap even if, at the age of sixty-four, she was having a hard time remembering the exact proportions to use.
5. JFM to BF, September 12, 1779.
6. Keziah Folger was born on Nantucket on October 9, 1723, when Jane was eleven. Keziah’s father, Daniel Folger, was Abiah Folger Franklin’s cousin, and her mother, Abigail Folger, was actually another cousin of Abiah Folger Franklin’s. Useful information about Keziah Folger Coffin was gathered by Jared Sparks in the 1830s. In 1838, William Folger of Nantucket wrote to Sparks, about Franklin, that “her parents being so nearly related to each other the Doctor used to say, that he considered Kezia as an own cousin.” Jared Sparks, “Papers sent to me by William C. Folger, of Nantucket. Relating to Franklin” in “Papers relating chiefly to Franklin. Used in writing his Life, 1839,” Sparks Papers, MS Sparks 19, Houghton Library, Harvard University. (The papers are filed by manuscript number; all further references to the Sparks Papers in Houghton Library supply this reference number.) Sparks also visited Nantucket, in 1826; see his diary entry for October 10, 1826, in MS Sparks 141c. Keziah Folger married John Coffin in 1746. She and Jane remained close until the American Revolution. Franklin also corresponded with Keziah, though much less frequently, it appears, than Jane did. On Keziah Folger Coffin, see Nathaniel Philbrick, Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602–1890 (Nantucket: Mill Hill Press, 1994), 123–33, and Betsy Tyler, Sometimes Think of Me: Notable Nantucket Women Through the Centuries (Nantucket: Nantucket Historical Association, 2010), 11–17. No scholar has yet investigated the ties between the Coffins and the Mecoms. William C. Folger’s notes from which he compiled the information he sent to Sparks can be found in William C. Folger, “Minutes from which my letter to Jared Sparks was Compiled and from which the account of the Folgers in Spark’s [sic] Life of Franklin is derived,” Peter Foulger (1618–1690), Folder 34, Folger Family Papers, Nantucket Historical Association Research Library.
7. Grace Harris was born on August 3, 1718, the daughter of Jane’s sister Anne and her husband William Harris of Ipswich (PBF, 1:lvii). In 1746, Grace Harris married Jonathan Williams of Boston. Jane’s friendship with Grace lasted until Grace’s death in March 1790, and Jane was close to all of the Williams children.
8. Lemay, Life of BF, 1:56. On James Franklin as a dyer, see Lemay, Life of BF, 1:56–57.
9. BF, Autobiography, 9, 10.
10. Ebenezer Turell, Memoirs of the Life and Death of . . . Mrs. Jane Turell, 25.
11. BF, Autobiography, 11, and BF, “Idea of the English School,” January 1751, PBF, 4:101. BF, “On Literary Style,” August 2, 1733, PBF, 1:328. BF, Autobiography, 10.
12. BF, Autobiography, 45, 11.
13. Daniel Defoe, Essay on Projects (London: R.R., 1697), 282–83, 293.
14. BF, Autobiography, 11.
15. JFM to BF, October 21, 1784. This was when she was sixty-two.
Excerpted from Book of Ages by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2013 by Jill Lepore. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.