Benjamin Franklin’s London Printing 1725–26

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Wilkinson, Hazel 

Benjamin Franklin worked as a pressman and compositor in London from January 1725 to July 1726, first at the printing office of Samuel Palmer on Bartholomew Close, and then at the office of John Watts on Wild Court. Franklin was only eighteen years old when he arrived in London, but he already had six years of experience in the trade. It was his “Bookish inclination” that persuaded his father to apprentice him at twelve in his older brother’s Boston printing house, and to the young Franklin the chief recommendation of the trade was “Access to better Books.”1 It is evident throughout his Autobiography that Franklin took a keen interest in the material that he helped to compose and print. The eighteen months that Franklin spent in London were formative, both in terms of his intellectual development and his skill at printing. Following his return to Philadelphia, Franklin set up a press with Hugh Meredith, and throughout his long and varied career he remained active in the book trade. Franklin’s Philadelphia printing is exhaustively documented in C. William Miller’s descriptive bibliography, but his early London work has never been investigated.2 Almost everything that is known about Franklin’s first London visit is derived from the Autobiography, which he began writing in 1771. Despite providing a description of Watts’s office that remains the most vivid surviving account of life as a printer in the eighteenth century, in the Autobiography Franklin revealed almost nothing about what he actually printed. The appendices to this essay document for the first time the material that passed through the presses for which Franklin worked during his first London visit. The majority of these items have been assigned to Watts and Palmer for the first time here; the methodology for these identifications is laid out, along with an investigation of some of the ways in which knowledge of Franklin’s London printing can inform our understanding of his life and work. I also consider other ways in which new scrutiny of the London book trade during 1725–26 can shed light on aspects of Franklin’s biography. I assess the utility of booksellers’ catalogues in determining what Franklin might have read, and suggest that he may have found work in London thanks to a network of Quakers with connections in the printing industry.

47 Language, Communication and Culture, 4705 Literary Studies
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The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America
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University of Chicago Press
The research for this essay was made possible by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I am indebted to the expertise of James N. Green, Connie S. King, J. C. Ross, Robert Williams, and the members of the American Literature Research Group at the University of Cambridge.