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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XX. The Walking Comedy.
by Thayer, William M.
|Benjamin was very hungry, and he was considering how he could appease
his hunger, when he met a boy who was eating a piece of bread.
"That is what I want," he said to the boy; "where did you get that?"
"Over there, at the bake-shop," the boy replied, pointing to it.
"Thank you," and Benjamin hurried on.
He had eaten nothing since he dined with the shop-woman in Burlington,
on the day before. Besides, bread was a staple article with him. He
had made many a meal of plain bread in his brother's printing office
in Boston. Although he knew well which side his bread was buttered,
his appetite for unbuttered bread never failed him. Entering the
bake-shop, he inquired:
"Have you biscuit?" He was thinking of what he had in Boston.
"We make nothing of the kind."
"Give me a three-penny loaf, then."
"We have none."
Benjamin began to think he should have to go hungry still, for,
evidently, he did not know the names used to designate the different
sorts of bread in Philadelphia. But, soon recovering himself, he said:
"Then give me three-penny worth of any kind." To his surprise, the
baker passed three great puffy rolls to him, enough for three men to
eat at one meal. At first, he was puzzled to know what to do with
them, whether to take all three or not.
"What! All that?" he said, scarcely knowing what he did say.
"Yes, there's three-penny worth; that is what you said, was it not?"
"It was," and Benjamin paid the money and took the loaves, trying to
conceal his surprise, without exposing his ignorance of methods in the
Quaker City. He was a boy of remarkable tact, as we have seen, so that
he was never put to his wits long without finding a way out. It was so
in this case. He put a roll under each arm, and taking the third one
in his hand, he proceeded up the street, eating as he went.
Recollect that it was Sunday morning, and people were already swarming
in the streets, arrayed in their best clothes. Benjamin was clad in
his poorest clothes, and they were very shabby. His best suit was in
his chest, and that was sent from New York by water. He was a sight to
behold as he trudged up Market Street with his three loaves of bread,
and his large pockets stuffed with shirts and stockings. He preferred
pockets to the usual "bandanna bundle"; they were more convenient for
storing away his wardrobe, but contributed largely to his comical
appearance. He was a walking comedy. People gazed at him inquiringly
and smiled. No doubt, many of them wondered where he came from and
where he was going. He was seedy enough, but no one saw the seed of a
philosopher or statesman about him. There was no promise in that
direction. He was an embryo "Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of
France"; but his appearance was that of a shack, or modern tramp, to
whom Sunday is like all other days, and whose self-respect is at a
On he went, however, regardless of opinions concerning the figure he
cut, stowing away in his stomach the baker's loaf in his hand. He
passed by the residence of one Mr. Read, whose daughter, in her teens,
Miss Deborah Read, was standing at the door. She gazed in wonder at
the singular specimen of humanity passing before her; thought he was
the most awkward and comical creature in the form of a man she had
ever seen; and turned away with a laugh to tell her people in the
house of the queer spectacle. She little thought that she was taking a
bird's eye view of her future husband, as the young man with the rolls
under his arms turned out to be. But just then he cared more for bread
than he did for her; some years thereafter, the case was reversed, and
he cared more for her than he did for bread.
He turned down Chestnut Street, and walked on until he came round to
the wharf where he landed. Being thirsty, he went to the boat for
water, where he found the woman and child, who came down the river
with them on the previous night, waiting to go further.
"Are you hungry?" he said to the little one, who looked wistfully at
"We are both very hungry," replied the mother quickly for herself and
"Well, I have satisfied my hunger with one loaf, and you may have the
other two if you want them"; and Benjamin passed the two rolls under
his arms to her. "It appears that, in Philadelphia, three-penny worth
of bread is three times as much as a man can eat. If other things can
be had in the same proportion, the last dollar I have left will go a
"I thank you a thousand times; you are very kind indeed," responded
the woman, with a heart overflowing with gratitude, which was as good
pay for the bread as Benjamin wanted. "May you never want for bread."
"No one would want for bread if they who have it will divide with
those who have none, as they should."
In the last reply was incorporated a leading virtue of Benjamin's
character--a trait that manifested itself, as we shall see, all
through his life. His generosity was equal to his wisdom. An American
statesman said of him, in a eulogy delivered in Boston:
"No form of personal suffering or social evil escaped his attention,
or appealed in vain for such relief or remedy as his prudence could
suggest, or his purse supply. From that day of his early youth, when,
a wanderer from his home and friends in a strange place, he was seen
sharing the rolls with a poor woman and child, to the last act of his
public life, when he signed that well-known memorial to Congress, a
spirit of earnest and practical benevolence runs like a golden thread
along his whole career."
"I must be after finding a boarding place," said Benjamin to the owner
of the boat, as he was about leaving. "I do not know where to go any
more than the man in the moon. Are you acquainted here?"
"Scarcely at all; could not be of any service to you any way on that
line," the owner answered. "Goin' to stop some time in Philadelphy?"
"I am going to live here if I can find work, as I expect to, and
become a citizen of this town."
"Wall, you'll make a good one, I know. May you never have reason to
repent of your choice. Goodbye."
"Good-bye"; and Benjamin walked up the street again. The people were
on their way to meeting, so that he was reminded of divine worship,
which he had partially forsaken in Boston. Being very tired, in
consequence of a hard time on the boat and a wakeful night, he
concluded to follow the people to church. They entered a large
old-fashioned meeting-house, and he followed them and took a seat near
the door. His appearance attracted much attention, as his dress was
not exactly that of a Quaker, and otherwise he was not quite of the
Quaker type; and it was a Quaker church in which he was. But he wasted
no thoughts upon his apparel, and did not stop to think or care
whether he was arrayed in shoddy or fine linen.
Whether he did not know that he was in a Quaker congregation, or
knowing that fact, was ignorant of the Quaker worship, does not
appear; but he waited for something to be said. While waiting for
this, he dropped into a sound sleep, and slept through the entire
service, and would have slept on, and been fastened into the
meeting-house, had not the sexton discovered him.
"Hulloo, stranger! Meeting's over; going to shut up the house,"
shouted the sexton, shaking the sleeper thoroughly.
"I was very tired," responded Benjamin, trying to get his eyes open.
"I was on the boat last night and got no sleep."
"Where did you come from?"
"Boston; I came here for work."
"Well, Philadelphy is a great place for work; what sort of work do you
"I am a printer by trade, and hope to find work in a printing office."
"And I hope you will. Sorry to disturb your nap, but I have to lock up
Benjamin thanked the sexton for waking him instead of locking him in,
and went out into the street. He had not proceeded far before he met a
Quaker whose face indicated a man of amiable and generous heart, and
Benjamin ventured to speak to him.
"I am a stranger in this town; arrived here this morning; can you tell
me where I can get a night's lodging?"
"Certainly I can; I suppose thee wants a respectable place." The
gentleman spoke so kindly as to draw Benjamin to him at once.
"Yes, sir; but not an expensive one; my purse will not permit of any
"Thee going to remain here some time?"
"Permanently, if I can get work; I am a printer by trade."
"I wish thee success," added the Quaker. "But here we are close by the
'Three Mariners'; but it is not exactly a reputable house, and thee
wants a better one."
"Yes; I want one that has a good reputation if there is such a one,"
"Well, if thee will follow me, I will show thee a better one; it is
not far away."
Benjamin followed him into Water Street, where he pointed out a public
"There's the 'Crooked Billet,'" said the Quaker, "a tavern that is
reputable, where thee can find board and lodgings for a day or a
"Thank you, sir, for your kindness," said Benjamin; "I shall not
forget you. May every body be as friendly to you as you have been to
At the same time, Benjamin thought it was a very queer name for a
public house. He did not like either part of it, and he said to
himself, "'Crooked Billet'!--crookedness and a cudgel to strike down
the turbulent with, are suggested." The name did not suggest any thing
pleasant to him. But he went in, and engaged lodging and board until
"Where are you from?" asked the landlord, scanning him from head to
"I am from Boston."
"Boston, hey? How long have you been on the way?"
"Got friends in Philadelphia?"
"Not one; all strangers to me."
"What did you come here for?"
"I came to secure work in a printing office. I am a printer by trade."
"How old are you?"
"And came all the way from Boston alone?"
Benjamin saw by this time that the landlord suspected him of being a
runaway apprentice. This class of characters was large at that day,
for apprentices were often subjected to cruelty that made them
runaways. So he closed the conversation as soon as possible and went
to his room, where he slept until six o'clock, when he was called to
supper. Not long after supper he went to bed and slept soundly until
He arose early, took special pains to make himself as presentable as
possible, paid his bill without waiting for breakfast, perhaps because
he was reducing his cash so nearly to the last cent, and sallied forth
in search of Mr. Bradford. He experienced no trouble in finding the
printing office; but was very much surprised to find Mr. Bradford of
New York there, father of the young printer Bradford of Philadelphia,
to whom the father sent him.
"Glad to see you, my young friend. I got here first, after all, as you
see," remarked Mr. Bradford, the father, as he welcomed Benjamin with
a hearty shake of the hand. "Had any ill-luck on your way?"
"Not exactly bad luck, for I considered myself quite lucky to get here
at all; but a slow, tedious trip, with delays and storms and
disappointments most of the time," was Benjamin's answer, and he
entered somewhat into details.
"Well, you are here, and I am glad to meet you; and, now, you want
work." Then, turning to his son, Mr. Bradford continued: "My son, let
me introduce this young man to you. He is a printer by trade, from
Boston, in search of work: Benjamin Franklin. He called upon me in New
York, and I advised him to come to you, knowing that your leading
printer had died."
The young printer and the runaway were soon acquainted,--young
Bradford being as genial and friendly as the senior.
"I regret that I have no work for you now. I have filled the place
made vacant by the death of Bolder."
"There is another printer here, is there not?" asked the senior
"Yes, Keimer; it is possible he may want a man. But it is breakfast
time now; let us all go to breakfast, and then we'll see what can be
Benjamin was invited to breakfast with them, and there learned that
Mr. Bradford of New York came all the way on horseback, starting very
unexpectedly the next day after Benjamin left New York. He was
somewhat surprised, also, to learn that Philadelphia had only seven
thousand inhabitants at that time--five thousand less than Boston.
"I will go with you to see Mr. Keimer," said the senior Bradford,
after breakfast. "Perhaps I may be of service to you."
"I shall feel myself under great obligations to you if you will,"
answered Benjamin. "It is quite necessary that I should get work, as
my money is nearly gone."
"We can fix that, I think," said young Bradford. "I may be able to
give you a little something to do, if Keimer don't want you, so that
you won't starve. You can lodge at my house."
"Thanks," replied Benjamin. "I appreciate your kindness, and hope to
be able to make some return for it in the future. I am sorry not to
appear before you in more respectable apparel, but my chest of clothes
comes by water from New York, and I have not received it yet."
"Clothes don't make the man," responded the elder Bradford, who had
discovered a remarkably bright and intelligent youth in Benjamin.
"Brains take the precedence of clothes in New York and Philadelphia."
Benjamin found himself among good friends, so he cheerfully accepted
their counsel. The senior Bradford accompanied him to Keimer's.
"Neighbor," said Bradford, "I have brought to you a young man from
Boston, a printer by trade; he is after work. Perhaps you can employ
"That depends on his qualifications," answered Mr. Keimer. "I want
some one who is acquainted with the business."
"You will find him all right, I think; he appears to know what he is
"How long have you worked at the business?" inquired Keimer, turning
"Over three years."
"Do you understand all parts of it so that you can go on with it?"
"Yes, I think I do; you can ascertain by trying me."
"Take this composing-stick and try your hand; let me see what you can
Benjamin proceeded to give an exhibition of his skill at type-setting,
which he did so rapidly and easily that Keimer was delighted.
"Very well done, indeed. I think you told the truth; you must have had
considerable experience. I will employ you as soon as I have
sufficient work. At present, I have nothing for you to do."
"It is not often, Mr. Keimer, that you have the opportunity to employ
a skilled hand like this young man," suggested Bradford. "If you could
give him enough to do to pay his board, until you are full of work, it
may be for your interest and his, too."
"That is true. I am at work now upon this Elegy on Aquila Rose, who
was clerk of the Pennsylvania Legislature; and I may want him to print
it. I shall have it ready in three or four days. I am expecting other
work soon, also."
"You can return to my son's house to eat and sleep," said Mr. Bradford
to Benjamin. "I think Mr. Keimer will want you before long. He expects
to have business."
"What do you think of my prospects here, sir?" inquired Keimer of Mr.
Bradford, supposing him to be a citizen of Philadelphia. "I have
hardly got under way yet; it is only a few weeks since I began."
"That will depend upon your own exertions and business talents.
Philadelphia is a growing town, where industry and perseverance will
"I shall do all in my power to draw the business of the town; and I
think I can do it by industry and giving first-class work."
"How can you expect to get all the business when there is another
printer here, who has been established some time?"
Keimer answered the last inquiry by disclosing his plans, as Bradford
artfully drew him out on every point, until he learned how he was
calculating to command all the business, and run his son out of it.
Nor did Keimer dream that he was conversing with the father of the
other printer, whom he designed to deprive of his livelihood. All the
while Benjamin stood and listened to their conversation, perceiving
that Bradford was shrewdly learning Keimer's plans for the benefit of
"You did not know that man, did you?" inquired Benjamin, after
"No; but I concluded he was some business man of the town, who would
be interested to see a printing office successful, and so took pains
to introduce you to me."
"Then you will be surprised to learn who he is, when I tell you. That
was the father of Andrew Bradford, your neighbor, the printer. He
carries on printing in New York."
"Can that be?" exclaimed Keimer, astonished over the bit of news, and
startled at the thought of having made known his plans to a
"Yes, it is even so. That was Mr. Bradford, the New York printer,
father of Andrew Bradford, the printer of your town; and not his
"How in the world did he happen to come here with you?"
"I can tell you in a few words," replied Benjamin. "I called on him
for work in New York, and he directed me to his son here, who had just
lost a good hand by death. Very unexpectedly, on the next day, he
started for Philadelphia on horseback, and, when I called upon his
son, this morning, I found him there. His son had just hired a man;
and so he directed me to you, and his father offered to come and
"Well, all that is natural enough, but it is pretty hard on me,"
answered Keimer. "If I had known that was Bradford's father, I should
have kept my mouth shut, of course."
"You opened it pretty wide to him, and he took advantage of it, as
most men will do. But I guess no harm is done. He and his son both
appear to be friendly to you; they would not have proposed that I
should come here for work, if they had not been."
"That looks so, I must confess," said Keimer; "but I have learned one
good lesson from it: never to divulge secrets to a stranger. When I do
that again I shall not be in my right mind. But I wanted to ask you
about your Boston experience in a printing office; what office was you
"My brother's, James Franklin. He published a paper, the New England
Courant. He did a large business."
"Yes, our paper here gave some account of it. The editor had some
trouble with the Government, did he not?"
"Yes, and a serious trouble it was. He believed in the freedom of the
press, and the officials did not; so there was a collision. He
determined to fight the censorship of the press, and he was imprisoned
for it. Then I edited and published the paper in my own name."
"You run it!" exclaimed Keimer in a tone of wonder and unbelief.
"Yes, I run it,--without letting up one jot in attacking the
intolerant Government. It was a hot contest, but the common people,
true Americans, rallied to our support, and left the aristocratic
officials to toady to the English Government."
"A new order of things when a boy edits and publishes a paper in a
straight fight with Great Britain," was all that Keimer said, in
reply, evidently not believing a word of Benjamin's story about the
Courant. However, the more he talked with the new comer, the more he
was impressed with his intelligence and manly character. He found that
his clothes were the poorest part of him, that underneath his shabby
garments there dwelt a soul of large possessions and aspirations.
Benjamin learned at Keimer's office what a blessing it was to him to
have practised doing things well. Thoroughness in learning the
printer's art, as well as in studying the use of language and
composition, characterized him in Boston, as we have seen. Now he was
reaping the benefits of it. He handled the composing-stick so
dexterously, and answered every question so intelligently and
promptly, that Keimer saw at once he was really an expert. Many boys
are satisfied if they can only "pass muster." Their ambition rises no
higher than that. But not so with Benjamin. He sought to understand
the business to which he attended, and to do as well as possible the
work he undertook. The consequence was that he was a thorough workman,
and, in five minutes, he was able to satisfy Keimer of the fact. This
was greatly in his favor; and such a young man is never long out of
business. Doctor Johnson said, "What is worth doing at all, is worth
Samuel Budgett said, "In whatever calling a man is found, he ought to
strive to be the best in that calling; if only a shoe-black, he should
try to be the best shoe-black in the neighborhood." Budgett conducted
his immense business, in which he employed six hundred men, on this
principle. When a boy was introduced into his warehouse he was set to
straightening old nails. If he straightened nails well, he was
promoted to bag-mending; if he did not do it well, he was dismissed.
The thorough nail-straightener and bag-mender moved upwards into
larger and higher fields of work; and so the great English merchant
could boast of having the most efficient and faithful class of
employes in the British realm. Training them to do their best did it.
James Parton said to David Maydole, inventor of the modern hammer and
manufacturer of the best hammers in the world, "By this time you ought
to be able to make a pretty good hammer." Maydole replied, "No, I
can't. I can't make a pretty good hammer, I make the best that's
made." Once a party applied for several hammers, to whom Maydole was
indebted for some favor, and the party said to him, "You ought to make
my hammer a little better than the others." Maydole responded, "I
can't make any better ones. When I make a thing, I make it as well as
I can, no matter whom it is for." Doing his best every time led him on
to fortune. He never pushed his business. He never advertised. Making
the best hammer in the market created all the business he wanted.