Before he was a Founding Father, the multifaceted, ever-experimental Benjamin Franklin was a great many other things—from street performer to political cartoonist, and even a middle-aged widow. Here are a few highlights of Franklin’s early days.
1. He Was a Great Swimmer
Young Ben was such an aquatic ace that his feats eventually earned him a posthumous induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968. One of his most famous adventures came on a visit to England during which a 19-year-old Franklin swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars (3½ miles) in the Thames and performed a number of aquatic acrobatics to the delight of his compatriots. In addition to his achievements within the water, Franklin was honored for his childhood invention of flippers—worn on the hands, not feet—and his hobby of teaching friends to swim. In fact, he was so proficient that he was invited to open a swimming school in England, an offer he turned down.
2. He Created a Pseudonym to Fool His Brother
At just 16 years old, Ben adopted not just a pseudonym, but an entire pseudo-identity to get his words in print. Confident that his older brother James would never publish his work, Ben wrote a series of letters to James’ paper, The New-England Courant—where Ben was an apprentice—as Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow with sharp, satirical wit. Between April and October of 1722, Ben penned 14 letters as Silence and although they were well received, James was not amused when the dame’s true identity came to light.
3. He Kept Masquerading as a Woman
This was the first but not the last time Franklin would adopt a feminine alter ego in writing. During the course of his life, Franklin’s work would appear in newspapers under bylines such as Polly Baker, Alice Addertongue, Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, and the not-very-creatively-named Busy Body.
4. He Rallied Other Scholars
At 21 years old, Franklin established a weekly discussion group among twelve like-minded men known as Junto. They met each Friday and, according to Franklin’s biography, “every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing on any subject he pleased.” If that sounds like a lot of homework, consider this: Franklin also detailed a list of 24 questions each man should ask himself the day of the meeting.
5. He Was a Librarian
As Junto grew, the group found that it lacked the required resources, namely books, necessary to settle disputes. So in 1731, Franklin convinced his fellow members to pool their resources to purchase a collection of books. A total of 50 founding shareholders originally signed on, and on July 1, the group drafted their Articles of Agreement, thereby founding The Library Company of Philadelphia, which remained the largest public library in the country up until the 1850s.
6. He Created an Iconic Call to Unity
Ben Franklin is responsible for the “Join or Die” drawing, which depicts a snake whose severed parts represent the colonies. He drew it after attending the Albany Congress of 1754 as a chief delegate. It first appeared in Franklin’s paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 9, 1754, and is widely recognized as the first American political cartoon.
7. He Wasn’t That Much of a Turkey Fan
Ben Franklin never said he wanted a turkey, and not the bald eagle, on our national seal. First of all, although he served on an earlier committee that discussed the Great Seal, Franklin ultimately wasn’t on the one that finally settled on the bald eagle. The oft-cited letter in which he calls the eagle a “Bird of bad moral Character” and lauds the turkey as “a much more respectable Bird” wasn’t talking about the country as a whole. Rather, he is writing to his daughter to complain about the Society of the Cincinnati, a military fraternity formed by Revolutionary War officers, whose symbol was also the eagle, one that happened to strongly resemble a turkey.
8. But He Could Find Uses for Turkeys
Although he’s mistakenly remembered as a proponent of turkeys, Franklin once tried to electrocute one of the birds. After bragging to a fellow scientist that his experiments with electricity could be put to use by killing and roasting a turkey via electrical shock, Franklin proposed to do just that for an audience. After several rounds of experiments, Franklin seemed to get the hang of it, but when the time came in 1750 for a demonstration, he ended up shocking himself, leaving him temporarily numb and less temporarily humiliated.
9. He Was a Clever Marketer
A very young Franklin, early in his apprenticeship days, assisted his brother’s newspaper business by composing mini-ballads highlighting the biggest news stories of the day and performing them on street corners. His father quickly discouraged this behavior, claiming that “Verse-makers were always beggars.”
10. He Could Really Talk About Drinking
On January 6, 1737, Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette published 200+ synonyms for the word “drunk” in what was entitled “The Drinkers Dictionary.” The handy list came accompanied by a note from Franklin himself: “The Phrases in this Dictionary are not (like most of our Terms of Art) borrow'd from Foreign Languages, neither are they collected from the Writings of the Learned in our own, but gather'd wholly from the modern Tavern-Conversation of Tiplers. I do not doubt but that there are many more in use; and I was even tempted to add a new one my self under the Letter B, to wit, Brutify'd…”
11. He Had at Least One Surprising Roommate
Franklin knew that you didn’t catch a cold from cold temperatures. This came up one night in 1776 when he and John Adams were forced to share not just a room but a bed. Along with Edward Rutledge, they were on their way to Staten Island to negotiate with Admiral Richard Howe of the Royal Navy for a possible end to the Revolutionary War. The inn they stopped at didn’t have enough rooms for all three men, so Adams and Franklin agreed to shack up but disagreed over what to do with their room’s window. Adams was worried the open window would cause him to become ill but Franklin argued, correctly but contrary to the wisdom of the time, that cool air would not cause either of them to catch a cold.