Pulling the Devil’s Tail While “In Search of a Better World” with Benjamin Franklin

My souvenir that I printed at "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," designed by Robert Tauber

While I live in one of the 24 American counties that are named for Benjamin Franklin, I’m a beneficiary of his invention of bifocals, and I love the ethereal sounds that emanate from the glass armonica that he developed, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to get to know him. That all changed, thanks to an exhibition celebrating Franklin’s achievements that’s now on display at Ohio State University’s Thompson Library.

On my way home from work the other day, I stopped at the library to attend the opening of “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” a traveling exhibition that was designed to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth. To complement the panels of text and photographs of artifacts that comprise the exhibit, OSU Libraries is displaying several items from its collections that are related to Franklin and his time.

The traveling exhibition panels are divided into six sections: “Character Matters,” about the young Franklin; “B. Franklin, Printer,” about his success as a printer in Philadelphia; “Civic Visions,” covering how Franklin helped to improve his community through philanthropy and education; “Useful Knowledge,” exploring his scientific inventions; “World Stage,” about his political career; and “Seeing Franklin,” a thoughtful look at how relevant Franklin is to our time.

Robert Tauber demonstrating the handpress at the opening of "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World"

After hearing a lecture about Franklin and educational liberalism by Carla Mulford, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University who edited The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin, I toured the exhibit. While I was in the exhibit gallery, I made a nifty take-home souvenir that book arts specialist and printmaker Robert Tauber designed for the occasion. With Mr. Tauber’s help, I put a dampened piece of paper on the tympan, set it up for printing, and pulled the “devil’s tail” on the Albion press that was cast in England in 1872. What emerged was an example of handpress printing that rivals a print of St. Sebaldus that I made on another handpress at Albrecht Dürer’s home in Nuremberg, Germany.

Since then, I’ve been reading Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s book about Franklin, as well as the hefty, luxuriously illustrated companion book to the exhibition, edited by Page Talbott. Both have offered an enlightening look at this intellectually curious, self-disciplined man who thought it was more important to live usefully than to die rich. While I knew Franklin founded the first American subscription library, I wasn’t aware that in 1742, he printed his edition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, the epistolary novel of a “beautiful young damsel” and her “Virtue Rewarded” that I frequently pulled out to share during Special Collections sessions with English students. I also learned that Franklin had printed French-language passports for American citizens, developed magic squares and circles to amuse himself during debates in the Pennsylvania Assembly, and that his son with the catchy alliterative name, Francis “Franky” Folger Franklin, died of smallpox when he was four years old.

The plate that Mr. Tauber used for printing

“Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World” will be on display in the Thompson Library Exhibit Gallery until April 22, 2011. Two more programs on Franklin are being offered in conjunction with the exhibit: “Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America” (April 9, 2:00 p.m., COSI) and “Benjamin Franklin’s Bookshop” (April 21, 4:00 p.m., Thompson Library).

Before I close, here’s another great Franklin-related find I made a few years ago. If you’d like to make your word processing documents resemble those that Franklin created at his printing office circa 1750, check out Franklin’s Caslon Set, a font set created by P22 Type Foundry in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to mark the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary. You’ll be amazed by how your computer-generated documents will look like they’re hot off the handpress!

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