In 1750 Benjamin Franklin, lifelong bibliophile, lover of knowledge, and founder of the University of Pennsylvania, gave the Penn Libraries one of its very first books. In honor of his 311th birthday, we are pleased to announce the acquisition of the publication that launched his life and career in Philadelphia, “The Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose.” It is the last previously-missing major piece of Franklin’s printing to become available to scholars, and it marks the beginning of Franklin’s Philadelphia legacy.
The broadside laments the recent death of Philadelphia poet and pressman Aquila Rose and was composed by the printer Samuel Keimer. It was printed by a teen-aged Franklin almost immediately upon his arrival in Philadelphia in 1723. According to Jim Green, a Franklin expert and librarian at the Library Company of Philadelphia, “‘The Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose’ reveals how much care Franklin lavished on the first thing he printed in Philadelphia. Franklin imposed the type in two columns and added a mourning border headed by a woodcut perhaps of his own design.” Green notes that the presswork involved in the broadside is “impeccable” suggesting that this masterpiece is what earned him a job as a pressman and kept him in Philadelphia. Without the opportunity to print the broadside for Keimer, one can imagine Franklin quickly moving on from Philadelphia, drastically changing the course of history.
This excerpt from Ben Franklin’s autobiography illustrates the circumstances around the elegy’s printing:
“Keimer’s printing-house, I found, consisted of an old shatter’d press…which he was then using himself, composing an Elegy on Aquila Rose… promising to come and print off his Elegy as soon as he should have got it ready.”
According to Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts curator 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,” explains 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.”
Though discussed in Franklin’s autobiography, no other copies of this broadside are known to survive. This particular copy is legendary for having appeared in the 1820s before disappearing from public view—until now. Discovered by an antiquarian book dealer inside the scrapbook of its 1820s owner and offered to the Penn Libraries, this is the first time the broadside will be available to scholars.
With the acquisition of “The Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose,” the Penn Libraries now has the bookends of Franklin’s career, both his first and last works of printing. “As an institution founded by Franklin and dedicated to his passion for the widest possible dissemination of knowledge and the promotion of learning,” Vice Provost and Director of Libraries H. Carton Rogers says, “the Penn Libraries is proud to carry the torch of his legacy, lighting pathways to the future by making Franklin’s work open and accessible to the wider world.”
From January 17th through February 10th, 2017, the broadside along with the album in which it was found will be on display on the first floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. A digitized copy of the broadside can be found at: http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/d/print/6768025 .