Benjamin Franklin: A How-to Guide


Benjamin FranklinWhat do you know and how do you know it? Today we are surrounded by self-help literature and how-to guides. While Franklin did not create this how-to universe, this most celebrated of self-made Americans did much to shape it.

In recognition of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, three scholars - Joyce E. Chaplin, Sara J. Schechner, and Thomas A. Horrocks - joined forces to curate a two-part exhibition that displayed simultaneously in two Harvard venues and explored the self-help theme from two perspectives.

At Houghton Library, the exhibition examined the Circulation of Knowledge, focusing on how information was made public. At the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, the focus was on Science and Sociability, exploring how science was part of a social context that prized human interaction and collaboration.

The exhibition featured rare books, broadsides, manuscripts, scientific instruments, natural history specimens, art, and music. Topics included "How to: be Charming, see Clearly, do an Experiment, learn Things, get the Word Out, do Good, be a Political Animal, see the World, win Friends and influence People, and be Benjamin Franklin."

Some of the books and pamphlets were written, printed, owned, or used by Franklin. These included Franklin's Plain Truth, Poor Richard's Almanac, and works on electricity, swimming, and numerous topics. Other items influenced his life and work. Among them was the manuscript in which John Hancock appoints and instructs Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to make a treaty with France in 1776. Another was one of only 25 surviving copies of the first edition of the Declaration of Independence. Personal letters between Franklin and Jefferson, David Hume, and various men and women round out the image of the man.

Notable scientific instruments included electrical apparatus that Franklin purchased for Harvard College in the 1760s, Franklin's maps of the Gulf Stream, and early bifocal spectacles of his design. Also on display were scientific instruments owned by friends of Franklin, including Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, the chemists who independently discovered oxygen; John Jeffries, a physician and balloonist who delivered the first air mail letter to Franklin; and Charles Willson Peale, an artist who established a famous, national museum in Philadelphia. A wild turkey from Peale's museum - still stately after 200 years - was on display to help explain why Franklin wanted this bird to be our national symbol.