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Benjamin Franklin - Almost America’s Most Famous Cutler

Philadelphia - Old City: Second Bank Portrait Gallery - Benjamin Franklin Credit

If it weren’t for a lack of nepotism, Mrs. Silence Dogood would most likely never have written those letters that appeared in the New-England Courant, my kids wouldn’t have gotten that great movie, and Benjamin Franklin might have become America’s most famous cutler! That’s right, I bet you didn't know that. So let me tell you a little story so that I can tell you other stories! Benjamin Franklin’s father, Josiah Franklin Sr., was the son of a blacksmith and immigrated to the American colonies in 1682. Fun fact - he had a total of 17ish children between 2 wives! Josiah had a half-brother, Samuel, who also came to the colonies, and Samuel had a son - also named Samuel, who is one of the subjects of this writing. Not much survives of Samuel junior, but we know he was an English-trained cutler. Records show his father was a blacksmith. We have no way of knowing why Samuel the junior did not go into blacksmithing, but records show he entered a cutlery apprenticeship - most likely at the typical age of around 12. One can surmise that “Junior” fled England to either escape his commitment to the apprenticeship or maybe it was just to see what it was like in the colonies. No records I have found hint at the motivation. I do suspect that he fled his apprenticeship as he arrived in America before his father and family did. But enough about that! So Samuel (junior) is the cousin (once-removed) of one Benjamin Franklin. Now that we got that out of the way - and if I lost you, the important tidbit of information is that Samuel Franklin, a cutler in Boston, was the cousin of Benjamin Franklin. Now, Ben’s father was a smithy by trade back in England - like his old man, but Josiah did not find his skills in demand in the colonies and took up the business of a tallow-chandler and soap boiler. When Ben was an older child, his father tried to get him to aspire to the clergy, but Ben left Latin grammar school by the age of 10. Shortly thereafter, his father had Ben work for him, but this work did not interest the boy, who had grand designs on setting sail at sea. At this point, I’ll let the young lad tell you what happened: But my dislike to the trade continuing, my father had apprehensions that, if he did not put me to one more agreeable, I should break loose and go to sea , as my brother Josiah had done, to his great vexation. In consequence, he took me to walk with him and see joiners, bricklayers, turners, braziers, &c. , at their work, that he might observe my inclination, and endeavour to fix it on some trade or profession that would keep me on land. It has ever since been a pleasure to me to see good workmen handle their tools. And it has been often useful to me, to have learned so much by it, as to be able to do some trifling jobs in the house, when a workman was not at hand , and to construct little machines for my experiments, at the moment when the intention of making these was warm in my mind. My father determined at last for the cutler's trade, and placed me for some days on trial with Samuel, son to my uncle Benjamin , who was bred to that trade in London , and had just established himself in Boston. But the sum he exacted as a fee for my apprenticeship displeased my father, and I was taken home again.

And that my friends, was that. I know, a bit anticlimactic, but don’t fret, because you don’t know the whole of the story yet. Of course, you know what happened with Ben Franklin after that as it’s well documented, but did you know he continued to correspond with our cutler-friend Samuel? Samuel as it turns out is a bit of a hard one to pin down. Some resources list him as a smithy, some as a cutler, and some as a hardware retailer. Most likely - all were true! We know his business in North Boston was called Crown and Razor. In November of 1768 and again in January of 1769, Samuel ran the following advertisement in The Boston Chronicle:

Wow - how about that! Now that’s some descriptive advertising. The story doesn’t stop there folks. Later, after Benjamin’s death, his grandson published Ben’s autobiography from his manuscript. This book was heavily edited by Jared Sparks, who later became the president of Harvard. In a footnote, Jared writes: This grandson of Benjamin Franklin followed the trade of his father, which was that of a cutler. On the father's sign, suspended over the shop door, was painted a crown, with his name, “ Samuel Franklin , from London .” It had also some of the implements of his trade. This sign was retained by Samuel Franklin the younger. At the beginning of the Revolution, the “ Sons of Liberty ” took offence at this crown, and demanded the removal of the sign ; but they finally contented themselves with daubing a coat of paint over the crown, leaving “ Samuel Franklin, from London ," and the implements of cutlery. Time gradually wore off the paint from the crown, so as to make it faintly visible ; and Mather Byles, who was as noted for his loyalty as for his puns, used to lament to Mrs. Franklin, that she should live at: the sign of the half-crown.- ED. Before the Revolution, Benjamin and Samuel corresponded via letters that Mr. Sparks got his hands on (a true historian that Mr. Sparks!) What we have are 5 letters from Ben to Samuel and 2 from Samuel to Ben. Most are pleasantries and goings-on, and you can find them via the links below. The last letter though, dated December 17, 1773, provides us a first-hand account of the Boston Tea Party; and not only that, an account of the Tea Party from a Loyalist (Samuel did advertise in the Boston Chronicle and his shop was the Crown and Razor) to one Benjamin Franklin! Boston 17th Decr, 1773. Dear Sir I Received your kind Letter by Mr. Danforth with the book of advice Inclos’d, for which I kindly thank you, and hope I Shall follow your good Directions. I find Still the times are hard and Dificult, but Desire to be thankfull. I Rubb along with my Neighbours. I hope Sir these Lines may find you in good health as they Leave me and my Family. My Wife and my four Daughters Joyns with me in kind Love to you and our Cozens Peirce, and we Should be glad of a few Lines from them. I Saw your Sizter Mecom a few Days ago who was better than She had been Some time. As for news, after three or four meetings of the Committes of the Near towns with a good number of the Inhabitants of Boston and our Committe they Had yesterday a grand meeting of about 5000 persons at the old South, to putt into Excecution the Sending the Ships back with the Tea and I think the Body Waited with a great deal of patience both upon the Consignees and Mr. Rotch. And finding the Governor would not give the Vessell a pass about 6 o clock the Meeting was Desolv’d and a parcell of men Calld Indians appear’d and by Nine o clock I heard that all the Tea was Destroyed by throwing it into the Sea. Such Sir is the Zeal of the Body of this people against Tea that Comes with a Duty. I Shall always be verry Glad Sir to hear from you and Remain Your Loving Kinsman Samuel Franklin To Dr Benjamin Franklin. Addressed: To Dr / Benjamin Franklin / in / London / per Capt Scott Thank you for reading this winding road of stories, and I hope you enjoyed, but for a moment, what could have been in cutlery history. I'll leave you with two of Benjamin Franklin's most enduring words on Cutlery: "There was never a good knife made of bad steel." - Poor Richard Improved, June, 1755. ​ "…I entered upon the execution of this plan for self examination, and continued it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish. To avoid the trouble of renewing now and then my little book, which, by scraping out the marks on the paper of old faults to make room for new ones in a new course, became full of holes, I transferred my tables and precepts to the ivory leaves of a memorandum-book, on which the lines were drawn with red ink, that made a durable stain, and on those lines I marked my faults with a black-lead pencil, which marks I could easily wipe out with a wet sponge. After a while I went thro’ one course only in a year, and afterward only one in several years, till at length I omitted them entirely, being employed in voyages and business abroad, with a multiplicity of affairs that interfered; but I always carried my little book with me. My scheme of Order gave me the most trouble; and I found that, tho’ it might be practicable where a man’s business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours. Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc., I found extremely difficult to acquire. I had not been early accustomed to it, and, having an exceeding good memory, I was not so sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method. This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbor, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turned, while the smith pressed the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. “No,” said the smith; “turn on, turn on: we shall have it bright by and by; as yet, it is only speckled.” “Yes,” says the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.” And I believe this may have been the case with many, who, having, for want of some such means as I employed, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded that “a speckled ax was best”; for something, that pretended to be reason, was every now and then suggesting to me that such extreme nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance. In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho’ they never reach the wished for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and is tolerable while it continues fair and legible. - The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1793 ​ Bibliography: Transactions. United States, Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1907. The Boston Chronicle, No 54 & 55, 1768 & 1769. Coleman, Edgar Werner. Advertising Development: A Brief Review of and Commentary Upon Various Phases of Advertising Development as Influenced by the Advertising Manager and Advertising Agent as Factors in Creating National and International Markets for American Products; with Two Hundred and Fifty Portraits of the Publicity Generals who are in Continual Rivalry for Commercial Conquest. United States, Germania publishing Company, 1909. Drake, Samuel G.. The History and Antiquities of Boston, the Capital of Massachusetts and Metropolis of New England: From Its Settlement in 1630, to the Year 1770, Also, An Introductory History of the Discovery and Settlement of New England, with Notes, Critical and Illustrative. United States, Luther Stevens, 1856. Doren, Carl van. Jane Mecon: The Favorite Sister of Benjamin Franklin : Her Life Here First Fully Narrated from Their Entire Surviving Correspondance. United States, Viking Press, 1950. Bigelow, John, and Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. United Kingdom, J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1868. Franklin, Benjamin, and Sparks, Jared. Life of Franklin. Autobiography. Continuation, by Jared Sparks. Appendix. United States, Tappan and Dennet, 1844. ​ “Poor Richard Improved, 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5, July 1, 1753, through March 31, 1755, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962, pp. 467–475.]


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