Franklin – The Home of his Boyhood

Image from the ThinkQuest page, Humble Beginnings: Franklin in Boston

FRANKLIN: — THE HOME OF HIS BOYHOOD.

There are a few places yet left in Boston, of universal interest. Do you see that old house on the corner of Hanover and Union streets, with a gilt ball protruding from its corner, diagonally into the street? It has no architectural pretensions to arrest a passer-by. It is a plain brick house, of three stories, with small windows, close together, and exceeding small panes of glass in them, the walls of a dingy yellow. Yet it is a house warming in associations interesting to well-nurtured minds throughout the civilized world. Read the name upon the bell, and you will get an inkling of my meaning — JOSIAS FRANKLIN, 1698. Yes, that is the very roof under which Benjamin Franklin grew up. He was not born there, but his father removed there when he was but six months old, so that all his recollections of home must have been connected with those walls. The side of the house on Union street remains as it was in the days of Franklin’s boyhood; but that on Hanover street has been shamefully treated. Nearly the whole front has been cut out to make room for two monstrously disproportioned show-windows. And this house, so full, as I have just said, of associations, is fuller yet of bonnets! Yes, by the head of the Prophet, of Bonnets! It is a bonnet Warehouse, and from the inordinate windows, aforesaid, bonnets of all hues and shapes ogle you with side-long  glances, or else stare you openly out of countenance, while mountain piles of bandboxes tower to the ceiling of the upper story, eloquent, like Faith, of things unseen. Heaven, forbid that I should say anything in derogation of bonnets, any more than of the fair heads that wear them, but I would that they had another Repository.

It was my good fortune to go over the house before it had undergone this metamorphosis. It was occupied in part at least, some eight or ten years ago, by a colored man, of the name of Stewart, a dealer in old clothes, who thought of buying the premises, and wanted my advice about it, I gladly availed myself of the opportunity to view them. The interior of the house was then, I should judge, in the same condition that it was when the worthy old soap-boiler and that sturdy rebel (in youth as in age) his world famous son, lived there. There were the very rooms in which the child Franklin played, the very stairs up and down which he romped, the very window seats on which he stood to look out into the street. The shop on the street was unquestionably the place where he used to cut wicks for candles, and fill the moulds, and wait upon the customers. I pleased myself in imagining which room it was in which the father sat, patriarch-like, at his table surrounded by his thirteen children, all of whom grew up to years of maturity, and were married. And you may be sure I did not fail to take a peep into the cellar, where poor-Richard, in his infantile economy of time, proposed to his father that he should say grace over the whole barrel of beef they were putting down in the lump, instead of over each piece in detail, as it came to the table. A proposition which inclined the good brother of the Old South Church to fear that his youngest hope was given over to reprobate mind, and was but little better than one of the wicked.

Image from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

And I would have given a trifle to know which of the chambers it was that was Franklin’s own, where he educated himself, as it were, by stealth, Where he used to read ‘Bunyan’s Works, in separate little volumes,’ and ‘Barton’s Historical Collections,’ — ‘small Chapman’s books, and cheap; forty volumes in all’ — and Plutarch’s Live, not to mention ‘a book of De Foe’s called An Essay to do Good,’ and where too, his lamp (or more probably his candle’s end) was ‘oft seen at midnight’s hour,’ as he sat up the greatest part of the night, devouring the books which his friend the bookseller’s apprentice, used to lend him over night, out of the shop, to be returned the next morning. How the rogue must have enjoyed them! Seldom have literary pleasure been relished with such a gusto as by that hungry boy.

It will not be many years before this monument of the most celebrated man that Boston, not to say America ever produced, will be demolished, and the place that knows it will know it not more, unless something be done to save it. It will be a burning shame, and lasting disgrace to Boston, with all its pretensions to liberality, and its affections of reverence for its great men, to suffer the most historical of its houses to be destroyed, when the rise of real estate in that neighborhood shall seal its doom. It is a shame that it has been left so long to take the chances of business. It should have been bought years ago, and placed in the hands of the Historical Society, or some other permanent body, in trust, to be preserved for ever, in its original condition. It is not late to restore it to something like its first est???e, and to save it from utter destruction. If it be not done, it will be a source of shame and sorrow when it is too late.

The house in which Franklin was born has been destroyed within this century. That house stood in Milk street, a little below the Old South Church, on the other side of the way, and the spot if marked by a ‘Fortunate Warehouse’ five stories high, which forms a fitting pendant to the Bonnet Warehouse, in Hanover street. The printing office of James Franklin, where Franklin served his apprenticeship, where he used to put his anonymous communications under the door, where he used to study when the rest were gone to dinner, and where he used sometimes to get a flogging from his brother — was in Queen, now Court street, nearly opposite the Court house on the corner of Franklin Avenue, which, if I am not mistaken, derives its name from this curious circumstance.

American Freeman (Prairieville, Wisconsin) Dec 15, 1847

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