Aquila Rose, a 28-year-old Philadelphia poet and pressman, died in 1723. That same year Benjamin Franklin broke his indenture with his brother, left Boston, and stopped in New York to see if the printer William Bradford had a job for him. Bradford did not have a job, but he told Franklin that his son Andrew, a printer in Philadelphia, had lost his pressman to death. Seventeen-year-old Franklin headed to Philadelphia.
Photo courtesy Penn Libraries.
According to James Green, librarian at the Library Company in Philadelphia and an expert on Franklin and his printing, by the time Franklin got to Andrew Bradford, the job had been filled, but the older Bradford, who had journeyed by horseback to Philadelphia to see his son, said to Franklin, “‘Let’s go see this new guy that came to town.’ They went to find the crazy Samuel Keimer.”
Green said that Franklin wrote about his visit to Keimer in his autobiography. Franklin arrived when Keimer was setting type for an elegy to Aquila Rose but did not have his press set up. Franklin offered to set up the press and finish the job. He set the type in two columns, made a woodcut of skull and bones for the top, and put a mourning border around it. Keimer was pleased with the job and gave Franklin some work. Franklin stayed in Philadelphia, had great success as a printer, helped establish every major cultural institution in the city, including the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, and the Library Company, and played an important role in the formation of the United States.
It is not known how many copies of the Aquila Rose elegy broadside were printed and pasted up in public spaces. One surfaced in the 1820s when Samuel Hazard, a Philadelphia historian who went door to door searching for documents, found one and printed the elegy. Then it disappeared until Carmen Valentino, a Philadelphia dealer in rare books and manuscripts, bought Hazard’s scrapbook. In that scrapbook he found the broadside. In January, Penn Libraries, Philadelphia, announced that it had acquired the broadside.
Valentino said he thinks his find of the Hazard scrapbook is as important as when his mentor Joseph Molloy found a copy of John Dunlap’s first printing of the Declaration of Independence in a chest during the Leary’s Book Store clearing-out sale in Philadelphia in 1968. In 1969 the Dunlap broadside sold at Freeman’s in Philadelphia for $404,000. The Aquila Rose elegy is much rarer.
Valentino won’t say where he found it, how long he has had it, or what he sold it for. He did say that he removed the Aquila Rose elegy from the scrapbook and had it professionally conserved. When he sold it to Penn Libraries, he included the scrapbook in the deal.
“I’m known for not breaking up archives,” Valentino said. “Hazard is important. He read Franklin’s autobiography carefully, and that is where he got the idea to look for the first thing that the seventeen-year-old Franklin printed in Philadelphia.
“I give credit to the provost and the Penn librarians who did their homework and realized how important this broadside is to Philadelphia and to the nation. They realized that Franklin’s introduction of Puritan Boston imagery [skull and bones] was alien to Quaker Philadelphia, but Franklin made it work. It is an important image in Philadelphia art history, and now it will be the first thing in the Franklin bibliography.”
According to Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts curator Arthur Mitchell “Mitch” Fraas, scholars know of around 900 surviving works printed by Benjamin Franklin. “Many of these works, especially broadsides and small ephemeral pieces, exist in only one or two copies,” explained Fraas. “The Penn Libraries now hold more than a third of his print production, making our collection of Franklin’s printing among the most important in the world.”
Fraas also pointed out that Aquila Rose was a writer and pressman just like Franklin. “His work was published posthumously in London the following year; it was quite something for an American poet to be published abroad.” Fraas said the scrapbook is an important artifact too. “It shows us how an antiquarian looked at the past in that period. It seems right that these treasures have come to an institution Franklin founded.”
The broadside was on exhibition from January 17, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, until February 10 in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center at Penn Libraries.
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest