All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
From Boyhood to Manhood|
VIII. Becoming Printer-Boy.
by Thayer, William M.
|At the time Benjamin was in the candle-factory his brother James was
in England learning the printer's trade. He spent several years there,
until he had mastered the business, intending to return to Boston and
establish that trade. He returned about the time that Benjamin was
concluding his disgust with candle-making, and was well under way at
the time he abandoned the cutler's trade. James brought press, type,
and all the et ceteras of a complete outfit with him from England.
"How would you like to learn the printer's trade with your brother
James?" inquired his father, a short time after Benjamin left the
cutler's shop. "I have been thinking it over, and I really believe
that you have more qualifications for it than you have for any other
trade. Your love of learning will have a better chance there, too."
"How is that?" answered Benjamin. "I do not quite see in what respect
I am better qualified to be a printer than a cutler."
"Well, you are a good reader, and have an intellectual turn, being
fond of books; and a printing office must have more opportunities for
mental improvement than the shop of a cutler. A type-setter can be
acquiring new and valuable ideas when he is setting up written
"If that is so I should like it well; and I should think it might be
as you say," Benjamin answered. "I might have a better chance to
"Of course you would. You may have matter to put in type that is as
interesting and profitable as any thing you find in books. Indeed,
James will no doubt have pamphlets and books to publish before long.
All that you read in books went through the printer's hand first."
"I had not thought of that," said Benjamin, quite taken with his
father's ideas about the printing business. "I think I should like it
better than almost any thing else. How long will it take to learn the
"I suppose that it will take some time, though I know very little
about it. You are twelve years of age now, and you can certainly
acquire the best knowledge of the trade by the time you are
"That is a long time," suggested Benjamin; "nine years ought to make
the best printer there is. But that is no objection to me; I shall do
as you think best."
"I want you should think it best, too," rejoined his father. "If you
have no inclination to be a printer, I do not want you should
undertake it. You will not succeed in any business you dislike."
"I do think it best to try this," replied Benjamin. "If James thinks
well of it, I shall, for he knows all about the trade."
"I will speak with him about it and learn his opinion," said his
father. "If he thinks well of it, I will see what arrangements can be
made with him. The prospects of the business are not flattering now,
but I think the day is coming when it will prosper."
Mr. Franklin lost no time in conferring with James, who favored the
plan without any reserve. He proposed to take Benjamin as an
apprentice, to serve until he was twenty-one years old, according to
the custom of the times, receiving twenty pounds for the same, and
giving him board and clothes until the last year, when he would be
paid journeyman's wages. This was a good opportunity on the whole, for
printing was in its infancy in our country at that time. Not more than
six or eight persons had been in the business in Boston before James
Franklin commenced, in the year 1717. The demand for printing must
have been very small indeed.
The first printing press in the United States was set up in Cambridge
in 1639 by Rev. Jesse Glover, who gave it to Harvard University. The
first thing printed was the "Freeman's oath"; the next, the almanac
for New England, calculated by William Pierce, a mariner; the next, a
metrical version of the Psalms.
It is claimed that ten years later than Benjamin's entering his
brother's printing office, there were but three or four printers in
our country. Whether that was so or not, it is certain that then, and
for many years afterwards, printers were very scarce. In 1692, Old
Style, the council of New York adopted the following resolution:
"It is resolved in council, that if a printer will come and settle in
the city of New York, for the printing of our acts of assembly and
public papers, he shall be allowed the sum of forty pounds, current
money of New York, per annum, for his salary, and have the benefit of
his printing, besides what serves to the public."
It is said, also, that when Benjamin Franklin wanted to marry the
daughter of Mr. Reed, of Philadelphia, her mother said, "I do not know
about giving my daughter to a printer; for there are already four in
the United States, and it is doubtful if more could get a living."
It is worthy of note here, also, as showing how slowly the printing
business advanced in the infancy of our country, that Great Britain
did not allow the American Colonies to print the English Bible. Hence,
the first Bible printed in this country was published in 1782, a
little more than a hundred years ago. For this reason most of the
pulpit Bibles in the Congregational and other churches of New England,
before that time, were the Oxford editions, in which the Book of
Common Prayer and the Psalms were included, and the Articles of Faith
of the English Church. Some of these are still preserved as relics.
"It will be necessary for you to be bound to your brother, according
to law," remarked Mr. Franklin. "These things must be done legally,
and such is the law and custom, too."
"And I am to board with him, also, if I understand you, father?"
Benjamin was thinking of leaving his home, and that would be a trial.
True, he would not be far from his father's house; he could step into
it every night if he wished; but it was leaving home, nevertheless.
"It does not seem quite right for one brother to be bound to another
for nine years," added Benjamin, thoughtfully, and after some
"But such is the custom, however it may appear, and it must be done so
to have every thing right and legal. We do not know what may happen in
the nine years. It is better to have things in black and white,
whether the bargain is with a brother or any one else."
Mr. Franklin added more to the last remarks, in order to remove an
objection which Benjamin seemed to have to being bound to his brother;
and he was successful. The last objection was removed, and cheerfully
and gladly Benjamin consented to become a printer-boy.
The following was the form of the indenture of apprenticeship that
bound Benjamin to his brother for nine years:
"This indenture witnesseth that Benjamin Franklin, son of Josiah
Franklin, and of Abiah, his wife, of Boston, in the colony of
Massachusetts Bay, with the consent of his parents, doth put himself
apprentice to his brother, James Franklin, printer, to learn his art,
and with him after the manner of an apprentice from the ---- day of
----, in the year of our Lord, 1718, until he shall have fully
completed the twenty-first year of his age. During which term the said
apprentice his master faithfully shall or will serve, his secrets
keep, his lawful commands everywhere gladly do. He shall do no damage
to his said master, nor see it to be done of others, but to his power
shall let, or forthwith give notice to his said master of the same.
The goods of his said master he shall not waste, nor the same without
license of him to any give or lend. Hurt to his said master he shall
not do, cause, nor procure to be done. He shall neither buy nor sell
without his master's license. Taverns, inns, and ale houses he shall
not haunt. At cards, dice, tables, or any other unlawful game he shall
not play. Matrimony he shall not contract; nor from the service of his
said master day nor night absent himself; but in all things as an
honest and faithful apprentice shall and will demean and behave
himself towards his said master and all his during the said term. And
the said James Franklin, the master, for and in consideration of the
sum of ten pounds of lawful British money to him in hand paid by the
said Josiah Franklin, the father, the receipt of which is hereby
acknowledged, the said apprentice in the art of a printer, which he
now useth, shall teach and instruct, or cause to be taught and
instructed, the best way and manner that he can, finding and allowing
unto the said apprentice meat, drink, washing, lodging, and all other
necessaries during the said term. And for the true performance of all
and every the covenants and agreements aforesaid, either of the said
parties bindeth himself unto the other finally by these presents. In
witness whereof, the parties aforesaid to these indentures
interchangeably have set their hands and seals this ---- day of ----,
in the fifth year of our Sovereign Lord, George the First, by the
grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of
the Faith, and in the year of our Lord, 1718."
To this document Benjamin signed his name, with his father and brother,
thereby having his liberty considerably abridged.
A boy by the name of William Tinsley took the place of Benjamin in Mr.
Franklin's candle-shop. He was bound to Mr. Franklin as Benjamin was
bound to his brother. But he liked the business no better than
Benjamin did, and, finally, to escape from his thraldom, he ran away;
whereupon his master inserted the following advertisement in the New
England Courant of July, 1722, which reads very much like
advertisements for runaway slaves, in that and later days; and,
probably, young Tinsley thought he was escaping from a sort of white
"Ran away from his Master, Mr. Josiah Franklin, of Boston, Tallow-chandler,
on the first of this instant July, an Irish Man-servant, named William
Tinsley, about 20 years of age, of a middle Stature, black Hair, lately
cut off, somewhat fresh-colored Countenance, a large lower Lip, of a
mean Aspect, large Legs, and heavy in his Going. He had on, when he went
away, a felt Hat, a white knit Cap, striped with red and blue, white
Shirt, and neck-cloth, a brown-coloured Jacket, almost new, a frieze
Coat, of a dark colour, grey yarn Stockings, leather Breeches, trimmed
with black, and round to'd Shoes. Whoever shall apprehend the said
runaway Servant, and him safely convey to his above said Master, at
the Blue Ball in Union street, Boston, shall have Forty Shillings
Reward, and all necessary Charges paid."
There is no evidence that Tinsley was ever found. He hated the
candle-trade so lustily that he put the longest possible distance
between himself and it. Had Benjamin been compelled to continue the
unpleasant business, he might have escaped from the hardship in a
These facts, together with the foregoing documents, show that, in some
respects, many white youth of that day were subjected to an experience
not wholly unlike that of the colored youth. Often the indentured
parties became the victims of cruelty. Sometimes they were half
clothed and fed. Sometimes they were beaten unmercifully. They were
completely in the hands of the "master," and whether their experience
was pleasant or sad depended upon his temper.
Add another fact to the foregoing about the indenture of apprenticeship,
and the similarity of white to Negro slavery, in that day, is quite
remarkable. No longer than seventy-five years ago, a poor child, left
to the town by the death of the father, was put up at auction, and
the man who bid the lowest sum was entitled to him. The town paid the
amount to get rid of the incumbrance, without much regard to the future
treatment of the orphan.
A near neighbor of the author, eighty-three years of age, was sold in
this manner three times in his early life, suffering more and more
with each change, until he was old enough to defend himself and run
away. His first buyer, for some reason, wanted to dispose of him, and
he sold him at auction to another. The second buyer was heartless and
cruel, against which the boy rebelled, and, for this reason, he was
sold to a third "master," who proved to be the worst tyrant of the
three, subjecting the youth to all sorts of ill-treatment, to escape
which he took to his heels. He was not given a day's schooling by
either master, nor one holiday, nor the privilege of going to meeting
on the Sabbath, nor was he half fed and clothed. At twenty-one he
could neither read nor write.
We have turned aside from our narrative to record a somewhat barbaric
custom of our forefathers, that the reader may appreciate all the more
the higher civilization and more congenial experiences of this age.
Benjamin had become a printer-boy as fully equipped for duty as
documents, pledges, and promises could make him. His heart entered
into this new work, and his head also. The business set him to
thinking. He liked it. Indeed, he could find no fault with it. The
business liked him, too; that is, he had a tact for it--he was adapted
to it. The boy and the trade were suited to each other. Hence, he
became even fascinated with it.
"I like it better than I thought I should," he said to his mother. "I
have to use my brains more in putting a single paragraph into type
than I did in filling a whole regiment of candle-moulds. I like it
better and better."
"I am glad to hear that, though I rather expected as much. If you like
it as well as James does, you will like it well enough. He is
thoroughly satisfied with his trade, and I think he will find it to be
a profitable one by and by. In a new country it takes time to build up
almost any trade."
Mrs. Franklin spoke from a full heart, for she had great interest in
Benjamin's chosen pursuit, because she believed that he possessed
remarkable talents. She still expected that he would make his mark,
though prevented from entering the ministry.
"I get some time to read," continued Benjamin, "and I mean to get
more, though there is much confusion at my boarding-place."
"You must not gain time for reading at the expense of neglecting your
work," suggested his mother. "Your time is your brother's, and, first
of all, you must fulfill your obligations to him. Fidelity is a
cardinal virtue, remember."
"Of course," replied Benjamin. "I know what I am in duty bound to do,
and I shall do it. James has not found me a minute behind time yet,
nor lazy in the printing office; and I mean that he never shall."
"That is a good resolution, very good, indeed; and I hope you will
keep it. At the same time, do not neglect your Bible, nor cease to
attend public worship on the Sabbath. A boy can't get along without
these any more than his parents can. As soon as you begin to neglect
these you are exposed to danger, and the very worst sort of danger."
To those who are determined to succeed, time can be found for reading
without interfering with business. Budgett, the rich English merchant,
was a great reader. He would not allow his time for reading to
interfere with his business, nor his time for business to interfere
with his reading. He prepared a time-table by which his work was
regulated each day. From an examination of it we learn the number of
hours and pages he read the first two weeks of January, 1849. He spent
fifty-nine hours in his library, and read seven hundred pages of
Josephus' History, six hundred and sixty pages of Milner's Church
History, three hundred and eighty pages of Baxter's Saints' Rest,
and spent a fair proportion of the time in studying Townsend's Old and
New Testaments. Such is what the busiest man can do when he regulates
his time for it.
James Franklin's printing office, where Benjamin worked, was at the
corner of Franklin avenue and Court street. As his brother was
unmarried he boarded at a place near by, which James secured. Probably
the large family and want of room were the reason he did not continue
to board at his father's. The family were always in a strait for room.
A vacancy only left room which the remaining members sorely needed,
and they occupied it so readily and naturally that the former occupant
was scarcely missed.
The printer's trade embraced some kinds of work at that time which it
does not embrace now, as we judge from the advertisement of James
Franklin in the Boston Gazette, when he commenced business, as
follows: "The printer hereof prints linens, calicoes, silks, etc., in
good figures, very lively and durable colors, and without the
offensive smell which commonly attends the linens printed here."
Such printing was done for ladies who were in need of what there was
no manufactory to supply, at that time.
When Benjamin had served two years at his trade, he had become
indispensable to his brother. He had devoted himself to his work with
all his heart, and had made rapid improvement. He had acquired a good
understanding of the trade. He was a superior compositor. His judgment
was excellent. He was industrious--there was not a lazy bone in him.
And he was punctual.
The habit of reading that Benjamin had formed tended to make him
punctual. In order to command the more time he was promptly at his
work, and efficiently discharged every duty. It was this well-formed
habit of punctuality that made him so reliable in the printing office.
His brother knew that he would be there at such a time, and that he
would remain just so many hours. This habit won his confidence, as it
does the confidence of every one. There is no quality that does more
to gain a good name for an individual, and inspire the confidence of
his fellow-men, than this one of being on time. It is so generally
found in company with other excellent traits of character, that it
seems to be taken for granted, usually, that the punctual person is
worthy in other respects.
A ripe scholar was the neighbor of Dr. Adam Clarke, the commentator,
when the latter had become quite renowned. On the same evening both
saw a copy of the Greek Testament by Erasmus advertised. As soon as
the ripe scholar had swallowed his breakfast, on the next morning, he
hastened to the book-store to purchase the volume. "You are too late;
the book is sold," replied the book-seller to the inquiry of the
gentleman. "Too late!" exclaimed the scholar; "why, I came as soon as
I had eaten my breakfast;" "Yes, but Adam Clarke came before
breakfast," responded the merchant. The incident shows that the man
who is on time has the inside track; and the inside track is nearest
the goal. It is the wide-awake man who is prompt, not the dull, sleepy
procrastinator. The best qualities of manhood must be on the alert to
secure promptness; the poorest qualities will secure the opposite. The
prize is taken by the worker who is on time. It is lost by him who
is behind time, as the aforesaid scholar was. He planned to make
sure of his breakfast before he did of the book; but Adam Clarke made
sure of the book before he did of his breakfast, and he won.
In 1788, Washington visited Boston, and he decided to leave for Salem
on the morning of a certain day, at eight o'clock, precisely. A
company of cavalry volunteered to escort him to Salem. While the clock
of the Old South Church was striking eight, Washington mounted his
horse and started, though his escort had not put in an appearance. A
few minutes later, however, they arrived, and were greatly mortified
to find that Washington had gone. Putting spurs to their horses, they
galloped forward, and overtook him at Charles river bridge. When they
came up, Washington said: "Major, I thought you had been in my family
too long not to know when it was eight o'clock."
The habit of punctuality which Franklin formed in his youth,
distinguished him in his manhood as much as the same habit did
Washington. There is no doubt that it exerted a large influence in
placing him next to Washington among the founders of our republic. One
of the maxims that he wrote in mature life was: "He that riseth late
must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night."