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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, via Wikipedia // Public Domain

The Bitter Race to Publish America's First Magazine

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Benjamin Franklin is known for being one of history’s most famous polymaths. But despite being a famed statesman and inventor—plus establishing the nation’s first volunteer fire company and subscription library—at heart Franklin considered himself a printer. (As a young man, he even composed an epitaph comparing the "Body of B. Franklin, Printer" to "the Cover of an Old Book" and promising that he would one day "appear once more/In a new & more perfect Edition.") In the 1740s, it was his ambition as a printer that ended up embroiling him in a rivalry with a local competitor to launch America’s first magazine.

Franklin's father, Josiah, originally wanted his bookish son to enter into the clergy, but he couldn't pay for the requisite education. Instead, Franklin ended up apprenticing with his brother James, a printer, in their home city of Boston. Franklin followed in his sibling's footsteps and later became a successful printer in his own right, co-founding a printing shop in Philadelphia in 1728.

Some of the most notable products of Franklin's shop included his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack, which Franklin started publishing in 1732. But by 1740, Franklin had set his sights on another goal: producing the very first monthly magazine in the Thirteen Colonies.

At the time, England had its own monthly news magazine, called The Gentleman’s Magazine. Founded in 1731, it offered readers a curated mix of news, commentary, and literature; today, it’s remembered as the first publication to use the word magazine (derived from the Arabic makazin, or "storehouse") to describe a collection of printed material.

Franklin planned to loosely model his own magazine after The Gentleman’s Magazine. It would be published monthly and would offer an aggregation of stories from colonial newspapers. The printer also had a prospective editor in mind: an attorney and writer named John Webbe, who had published a series of essays on government in the Pennsylvania Gazette several years prior.

Franklin outlined his new business scheme to Webbe, hoping to bring him on board. The plan was to create a 57-page magazine, with an initial print run of 1000 copies. It would cost customers 15 shillings a year, or 15 pence per issue. Franklin would foot the production bills, and Webbe would be responsible for its contents, as well as writing promotions and abstracts. And since Franklin served as Philadelphia's postmaster, he would be in charge of distributing the magazine throughout the colonies. Since Franklin was paying to make the magazine, he proposed receiving 75 percent of proceeds, while Webbe would receive 25. Franklin would also receive three-fourths of the magazine’s royalties for the first 2000 copies; if more copies sold, he and Webbe would split them.

Initially, Webbe accepted Franklin’s offer. But after some consideration, he decided he wanted more money than Franklin was willing to give. So he went behind Franklin's back and pitched the idea to another printer named Andrew Bradford, proposing a larger share of the profits than Franklin had been offering.

Bradford was Webbe's friend—and Franklin's rival. He published Pennsylvania's first newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury, and once served as Philadelphia's postmaster; long before, he had also briefly employed Franklin at his print shop. But in later years, the ambitious Franklin launched a competing printing press and newspaper and replaced Bradford as Philadelphia's postmaster. Since then, their relationship had soured.

Bradford had reportedly also considered the idea of founding a magazine, so he jumped at the chance to beat Franklin—with Webbe as his editorial right hand. On October 30, 1740, Bradford printed a prospectus in the Mercury for a new publication called the American Magazine, or a Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies. Bradford promised readers that the publication would include an ambitious mix of political, legal, business, economic, and foreign news, as well as commentary and analysis. Their magazine would also be longer—and cheaper—than Franklin's. It was to be published for March (which meant it would appear in April, since 18th century magazines were always printed the month following their cover dates).

Not one to back down from a challenge, Franklin retaliated with his own magazine advertisement, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette about two weeks later. His publication, he announced, would be called The General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America. In addition to hard news, The General Magazine would include excerpts from new books; opinion essays and poetry; and news of births, marriages, deaths, and promotions. Franklin also lowered his planned price from 15 pence to nine pence, made the magazine longer, and decided to fund it entirely himself (rather than relying on subscriptions) to get it out faster.

The magazine would be ready for January, Franklin promised (which meant it would appear in February). The advertisement also noted that the magazine "would not, indeed, have been published quite so soon, were it not that a Person, to whom the Scheme was communicated in Confidence, has thought to advertise it in the last Mercury, without our Participation; and, probably, with a view, by Starting before us, to discourage us from prosecuting our first Design, and reap the Advantage of it wholly to himself." (On "a Person," Franklin included the footnote "John Webbe.")

Webbe responded with a series of newspaper articles in the Mercury attacking Franklin, accusing him of "the most mischievous Kind of Lying" and of having "the Slyness of a Pickpocket." According to Webbe, the project was never supposed to be secret and he hadn’t really committed himself to it, anyway. Franklin did not immediately reply, merely reprinting his advertisement, but some scholars think one of the proverbs printed around this time in Poor Richard’s Almanack may have been related to the betrayal: "If you would keep your Secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend."

Meanwhile, two magazine deadlines loomed. Bradford wanted to scoop Franklin, so he moved up the American Magazine’s publication date. Both magazines ended up running in February 1741, but Bradford’s publication ultimately got there first: The American Magazine was published on February 13, 1741, three days before Franklin's.

The intense rivalry among Franklin, Bradford, and Webbe had started with a bang, but ended with a whimper: Bradford’s American Magazine folded after three issues, and Franklin’s General Magazine lasted only six issues. But while Bradford and Webbe may have gotten there first, their names are now just footnotes in history—while Franklin's brilliant reputation, as a printer and far more, lives on.

Additional Source: The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747, J.A. Leo Lemay

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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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