Benjamin Franklin’s Job Printing

by Georgia B. Barnhill

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most remarkable figures in colonial America. His accomplishments were considerable even before he represented the American colonies as an ambassador and diplomat in England and France before and during the American Revolution. In 1723 he settled in Philadelphia, where, through 1748, his major activities were printing and publishing. The high regard he attained in that field is suggested by Isaiah Thomas’s description of him as "well known and highly celebrated."1

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. His father wanted his son to become a member of the clergy, but the expense for the required education was too great, so Benjamin at the age of ten joined his father in his business of tallow chandler and soap boiler. Two years later he started to learn to print from his brother James in Boston. James Franklin was trained in London and he printed with some skill and ambition. For example, in the summer of 1721, he established The New England Courant. Soon, James was forbidden by the Massachusetts Assembly to publish the paper because of attacks against the establishment, so the young Benjamin ran the newspaper for eight months in 1723. That was a large responsibility for the sixteen-year-old, but he successfully met the challenge. However, after many quarrels, he left his brother’s employ and moved to Philadelphia in October 1723, where he remained for the rest of his career.

As a young man, Franklin was a constant reader and worked hard to improve himself. He obtained work from the printer Samuel Keimer and attracted the notice of the colonial governor who sent him to London to purchase printing equipment. This mission did not work out as planned, so Franklin sought and found employment at Palmer’s printing house, and then at John Watts’s, where he learned a great deal about the business and craft of printing, including typography and design. In the summer of 1726, Franklin met Thomas Denham, a Quaker merchant, who offered him a post as clerk back in Philadelphia. That arrangement lasted only a few months as both men fell ill, Denham fatally. Franklin then returned to printing with his former master.

He left Keimer when he started his own printing firm in 1728, in partnership with Hugh Meredith. Because Philadelphia’s other two printers had a substantial proportion of the city’s printing business, Franklin at the outset specialized in job printing, particularly legal forms.2 In 1730 he terminated that partnership and became the printer for the Pennsylvania Assembly, with a lucrative contract that he retained throughout his printing career. With Hugh Meredith, he became publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729, and began his successful Poor Richard’s Almanac in the fall of 1732. In 1748 he entered into a partnership with David Hall that lasted until the end of January 1766. Although Franklin’s name appears in the imprints during this period, he actually was a silent partner, sharing in the profits, but not actively engaged in the printing business except in an advisory capacity. From the middle of 1757 through the middle of 1762, he was in England, and he returned there at the end of 1764.

Franklin’s career as a printer was a successful one. Fortunately, his brief period as a clerk in Denham’s employ taught him the importance of keeping financial records. His account books and ledgers enable us today to learn about the amount and variety of the job printing undertaken by him and his partner, David Hall, in addition to work that they published at their own risk for themselves. C. William Miller’s analysis of these ledgers, in Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing: 1728-1766, forms the basis for his incomparable bibliographical study of the Franklin and Hall imprints. Not only did Miller describe the surviving imprints, but he gleaned much useful information from the account books and listed entries from the accounts for which there are no surviving copies. These records indicate the amount of printing that has disappeared without a trace as well as the important role that job printers played in the legal and business life of the community. We should keep in mind, though, that probably only jobs involving the extension of credit, rather than jobs paid for in cash, were recorded, particularly in the years before David Hall became a partner.

One can argue that the services of the job printer were essential to the functioning of commerce and that printing job work was equally essential to the survival of printers in colonial America. One advantage of job printing is that the commissions were frequent and they did not tie up large amounts of type or labor for long. Staple products of the press–Bibles, almanacs, school books–did. Therefore, few large works were issued during the colonial era. In 1742 Franklin did publish the first novel in America–Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. It was not, however, followed by a stream of novels. Publishing such works was an expensive and risky venture, so that large-scale publications were generally published by obtaining subscriptions in advance, a labor-intensive effort. Franklin’s job printing records underscore these points. The items he published provide a window onto the cultural and social activities of Philadelphia during his printing career.4

Lawrence Wroth estimates that for every surviving Franklin imprint from the period 1760 to 1765, 3.7 have disappeared.5 Miller notes that "in the interval between April 12 and May 27, 1754, Franklin and Hall charged members of the visiting London Theatre Company, on twelve different occasions, for a total of 4300 play bills and almost 5000 tickets."6 Only two of the 4,300 theater programs, but none of the tickets, are extant–an incredible rate of loss. In Miller’s bibliography, 163 out of 852 entries, or almost twenty percent, describe examples of job printing that resulted in single-sheet publications. Most of the 545 printing jobs listed in Appendix A, items for which no copy has been located, were likewise ephemeral or single-sheet items. Moreover, there were many jobs executed for cash that were never recorded in the firm’s journals and ledgers. Also, the records for the period 1748 to 1757 are not complete. Therefore, it is not possible to compile an accurate listing of all of Franklin’s job printing. It was, however, an important part of the firm’s business and one can assume by analogy that it was important to other colonial printers.

The sheer variety of job printing listed in Miller’s Appendix A is astounding. In 1730 Franklin printed cures for Dr. Brewster; powers of attorney and bond forms for Joseph Breintnal; administration bonds and other blanks for Dr. Samuel Bushill of Burlington, New Jersey; tobacco papers for Nathaniel Edgecomb, Lawrence Rice, and John Spence; 100 bonds of good behavior and 100 certificates for Andrew Hamilton; Welsh Society tickets for Dr. Jones; certificates for John Moore; advertisements for Thomas Peters and John Wilkinson; forms for Nicholas Scull, deputy sheriff; and ‘hungary bills’ for John Spence. Seventeen jobs for twelve customers were recorded, resulting in about 3,500 printed sheets. No copies of these are recorded. The names of his customers reappear in following years, suggesting that his customers were satisfied with the products of his press and his prices.

The listing for printing jobs in 1742 was also fairly extensive. He printed naval certificates, London Company officer commissions, licenses for public houses and paddlers for Dr. Patrick Baird; advertisements for Captain William Bell for the auction of a privateer; advertisements for William Clymer Jr.; sheriff’s warrants for Mr. Crosdale; advertisements about Captain Spence for William Crosthwaite; soap wrappers for his brother John in Boston; license bonds for James Hamilton; hat bills for Charles Moore; bills and tickets for Evan Morgan; election notices for William Parsons; advertisements about chains across streets for the mayor of Philadelphia; advertisements about runaway sailors for John Reynolds; hat bills for Joseph Stretch; Irish Society tickets for Philip Syng and permits for Joseph Wharton.

The records for the years 1759 through 1765 listed many more jobs for each succeeding year. In 1761, for example, forty-nine jobs were recorded. There were a range of printed notices regarding, to give some examples, a stray mare; the Temple of Arts; a runaway slave; a mechanical display; and the sale of sturgeon, household furniture, groceries, buildings, hardware, and hats. They printed directions for using a watch, vestry notices, tickets for a Freemason Lodge, blank forms for the British colonial government, receipts and promissory notes for the Library Company, bills of lading, custom house forms, writs of trespass and bonds for the sheriff, and various kinds of certificates, bonds, and permits.

It seems clear that the products of Franklin and Hall’s press played an important role in the commercial and legal aspects of colonial Philadelphia and the surrounding region. About ninety-seven percent of the 545 jobs listed in Miller’s Appendix are for single-sheet items. They total thousands of pages–almost none of which has come to light in the twenty years since Miller’s bibliography was printed. Surviving imprints suggest the care with which these commissions were prepared. Most lack an imprint, but Miller was able to attribute those items to the press by means of surviving documentation in the account books and ledgers.

Franklin obtained the printing contract from the Province of Pennsylvania in1729. This was an important source of income for the young printer. It has been calculated that, from 1730 to 1750, he earned over 2,700 pounds in Pennsylvania currency from fees as a clerk and for printing statutes and currency.7 In order to bring his talents to the attention of the legislative body, he and his partner Hugh Meredith reprinted an address from the General Assembly to Patrick Gorden that had been printed in a "coarse blundering manner" by Andrew Bradford, the official printer for the Assembly. The difference between the original edition and the reprinted one was evident, and the printing contract for the following year was awarded to Franklin and Meredith (8). The contract was an important one. It has been estimated that Franklin and Hall earned about sixty percent of their income from their newspaper.

Another ten percent came from their government contract, which included printing the laws of the colony as well as more ephemeral pieces.9 Among the most common examples of official printing were the proclamations that were issued by the governors and lieutenant governors. The proclamation issued on 29 August 1738 relates to the Pennsylvania-Maryland boundary dispute. At the top of the broadside is the coat of arms of the colony. The mortised initial blocks formalize the appearance of the document, making it more authoritative. There are not as many proclamations of this type in Pennsylvania as there were in New England where Fast Day and Thanksgiving Day proclamations appeared twice a year and were distributed to the ministers in each town. The distribution of Pennsylvania proclamations may have been different. In the text of one printing of a Pennsylvania act to suppress cursing and swearing it was stated that copies were to be sent to each constable in the province to post in "the most Publick Place in their respective Wards and Districts."10 As these documents were exposed to the ravages of the weather and vandalism, it is no wonder that so few of them survive.

In 1749 another similar proclamation was issued forbidding the sale of liquor to native Americans. This document would have needed wide circulation to be effective in the regions where settlers and natives mingled. It was probably posted as well in Philadelphia where the natives came to trade. The penalty for disregarding this regulation was twenty pounds for each offense. It should be noted that Franklin also printed similar official documents for the government of neighboring New Jersey.

Although there seem to have been fewer routine proclamations for Franklin to print compared to the experience of printers in New England, there are some Thanksgiving Day proclamations extant. One was issued in 1746 on the fourteenth of July to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden in Scotland over the forces of the Pretender to the British throne. The text was also printed in the 17 July 1746 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

In addition to proclamations, there were many other government jobs that Franklin executed. Mortgage bonds and warrants by attorney were printed for the Pennsylvania General Loan Office and used by inhabitants of the Province borrowing mortgage money from the General Loan Office. Miller notes that "Franklin, and later Franklin and Hall, along with other Philadelphia printers, must have done numerous reprintings of the forms."11 Usually blank forms bear no imprint. Miller attributed many items to Franklin on the basis of type as well as according to the entries in the journals and ledgers. A different mortgage bond was printed in 1730 for the loan office in Kent County, now part of Delaware. Yet another blank form, a marriage surety bond, was printed for use in New Jersey. The provinces of New York and New Jersey required surety bonds of all couples seeking to marry. These meant that the spouses were legally liable for the debts, or financial failures of one another. Miller noted that in New Jersey, very few of these bonds were executed on printed forms; most were manuscript documents.12

Notices issued by the proprietors were also issued as broadsides. One printed in 1735 relates to debtors to the Land Office who were in danger of losing their lands if payments were not received promptly.

Another important government commission was the printing of paper currency. Franklin obtained contracts from the governments of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. These contracts ran for years, so that in Pennsylvania Franklin printed all the currency from 1729 through 1764, in Delaware from 1734 to 1760, and in New Jersey from 1728 to 1746. He learned about engraving from his brother James in Boston who engraved relief cuts for several imprints including Hugh Peter’s A Dying Father’s Last Legacy, published in 1717. Franklin undoubtedly learned more about the craft while in London. He developed a new means of ornamenting the pieces of currency with a technique known as leaf printing (fig. 1). The verso of each bill was ornamented by a casting of leaves to prevent counterfeiting. This was an innovative response to a perennial problem. The technique was not well known at the time, although the Philadelphia naturalist Joseph Breintnall made contact nature prints from leaves about 1730.

For use on currency the technique is as follows. A piece of wet, textured fabric is placed on a bed of smooth plaster. Next a leaf is placed upon the cloth. The two are pressed together and the plaster is allowed to harden. To make a plaster negative of the leaf cast, the plaster was oiled and more plaster was applied. The negative became the mold for the melted type metal which made the cut that could be printed typographically. The molds were used over and over again.13 David Hall Jr. and his partner used the same technique for the printing of Continental Currency in the 1770s. The currency business was a steady one. In Pennsylvania there were seventeen emissions of currency that Franklin and Franklin and Hall printed.

In 1735 the Pennsylvania government proposed the sale of 100,000 acres of land through a lottery. Franklin was paid two pounds, six shillings, and eight pence for printing 1,000 copies of this notice and an additional twelve pounds for 7,750 tickets. Like so many of the pieces of job printing issuing from his office, these items lack an imprint, but were recorded in his ledgers. Although no tickets remain for this lottery there is one for a lottery for the Conestogoe Bridge, printed in 1761.

Franklin’s output included the publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette from 2 October 1729 through 30 January 1766. After the imposition of the Stamp Act, he and David Hall suspended publication from 1 November through 26 December 1766. To escape the tax imposed on newspapers, Franklin and Hall issued several broadsides, printing such news as they saw fit. "No Stamped Paper to be had" is one of the sheets issued in lieu of the newspaper.

Franklin printed other topical news sheets apart from the newspaper. Examples include A Letter to B. G. from One of the Members of the New-Jersey Assembly, printed in 1739. The document is a response to Governor Lewis Morris’s address proroguing the first assembly of New Jersey. Like so many political tracts, it was anonymously written and bears no imprint. Another document, issued in 1741, is an account actually written before the anticipated attack on Cartagena, where the combined British and colonial forces were defeated in a little known battle related to the War of Austrian Secession. Another broadside issued in 1741 by Franklin is "The Dying Speech of John Ury" which focuses on an event taking place in New York. This broadside reprints a statement of repentance of a man convicted and executed for having been involved in a conspiracy in which he was alleged to have been a Roman Catholic priest promoting an uprising by slaves in New York. The slaves were to have murdered their masters and set fire to the city. The genre of confessional broadsides is rare in Pennsylvania; it is far more common in Massachusetts.

John Dickinson commissioned the firm to print a statement advising Pennsylvanians to ignore the Stamp Act in December 1765. He paid three pounds fifty for 2,000 copies. It was clearly circulated widely and was reprinted in at least two newspapers in other colonies.14

One of the earliest items that Franklin printed was a piece of broadside verse. It should not be too surprising that he also printed carriers’ addresses, probably annually, for most of his printing career. The custom began in England, but quickly became popular in colonial Philadelphia, where the first one, written by Aquila Rose, compositor of The American Weekly Mercury, was printed in 1720. Although most carriers’ addresses relate the important news of the previous year, the one issued for New Year’s Day in 1739 (fig. 2) is an amusing piece on the spreading of news, gossip, and slander. The concluding lines praise the newspaper editor: "If Home-Occurrences, that are well known, / And which concern but Few, are let alone, / The Printer sure deserves no Blame for this, / While in the foreign News he’s not remiss; / And what important ever happens here / He carefully collects, and renders dear." The ornament incorporates symbols and names of the four seasons, the signs of the zodiac, and the sun. Oddly, except for the carriers’ addresses, the firm left few other printed verses, at least that are known.

Much of the income of newspaper printers and publishers was derived from advertisements in the newspapers. The same printers also issued advertisements as part of their services to the local community. Advertisements were issued separately because of space constraints in the pages of the newspapers and because the newspapers were issued weekly, not daily, during the colonial era.

One advertisement, printed by Franklin in 1731 for Thomas Gray, noted the upcoming auction of the home and lands belonging to the estate of John Henry in New Castle. By the time that Franklin had printed this item, one of the earliest of his career, he noted that he already printed more than a thousand of this type.15 Separately published advertisements were easily circulated and posted to reach the widest audience. Advertisements can reveal a great deal about contemporary life. The advertisement issued by George Harrison in 1746 notes that he was trained in England as a surveyor and draftsman as well as a maker of marble objects for the home or to be used as tombstones or monuments. He suggested that he would be available to design and supervise the building of houses and other structures. Did he ever receive any commissions? A check of George Tatum’s Penn’s Great Town and the Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects: 1700-1930 fails to turn up his name.16 This broadside suggests that this George Harrison should have left some other record of his existence. Such is not the case.

Details about amusements can be gleaned from some advertisements, such as the one for "The Solar or Camera Obscura Microscope" and a musical clock designed by David Lockwood. These mechanical wonders were displayed alongside paintings at the home of a Mr. Vidale in 1744. The "Microcosm of London" was advertised in 1755 by Henry Bridges in an advertisement printed by Franklin that is no longer extant. This object is another large musical clock that is preserved in the British Museum. It traveled around the colonies and was displayed in other cities. A broadside advertising its display in Boston in May 1756 is in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.

An important aspect of the business during the partnership period was the selling of imported books. David Hall issued several long lists of books. They are not particularly handsome imprints or even readable, but they are important as documents of Hall’s business and as evidence of books available to the public.

The list of Franklin’s imprints is greatly enlarged by the number of blank legal forms. They range from indentures for apprentices, to bonds and other items. The indentures, such as one for an apprenticeship, bear striking titles, probably cast from type metal. Just in the years 1730 to 1735, he printed a total of 16,800 blank forms for his customers at a total price of 112 pounds. This total number does not include the number that the printer created for himself to sell in his stationer’s shop.17 The imprint on forms sold by Franklin, "Philadelphia: Printed and Sold at the New Printing-Office near the Market: Where are Sold all Sorts of Blanks," notes that the printing office was conveniently located near the center of commerce and business.

The Linen Manufactory was established to employ the poor of the city. Investors assumed that it would be profitable because of the enactment of the Sugar Acts which increased the price of imported linen. Franklin was among the promoters, so it is not surprising that he printed forms for the company. An additional 100 forms were printed in 1766.18

Franklin, of course, was instrumental in establishing several organizations in Philadelphia, including the Library Company of Philadelphia. His entrepreneurial spirit was strong, and he printed ephemera for the fledgling institution, including meeting notices, promissory and deposit notes, book labels, and receipts for membership payments. He also printed the early catalogs for the library. One subscription receipt was issued in 1731, the year that the Library Company was founded. He occasionally printed bookplates for individuals, including Alexander Stedman, who ordered two hundred of these labels for his private library (fig. 3). The cost was a mere seven shillings, six pence.19

Franklin was also instrumental in the establishment of the Union Fire-Company of Philadelphia in 1737. He printed the Articles of the Union Fire-Company in 1743. In 1749 and 1752, he printed lists of members. Franklin served as recording secretary so it is no wonder he was the printer. He also printed for the Star Fire Company the same year.

Another organization that he helped to establish was the American Philosophical Society. He printed the proposals for it in 1743, and Miller attributes the writing of the piece to Franklin. Likewise, he printed the agreement founding the Association for Defense. Colonial inhabitants of Philadelphia felt a need to band together in 1747 for defense because "the Assemblies of this Province, by reason of the religious Principles, have not done, nor are likely to do any Thing for our Defence [sic]." This organization founded a militia to provide security because Great Britain was at war with France in Europe and would not be able to provide any security for Pennsylvania against Spanish and French privateers. There were 500 copies ready for distribution at a public meeting held on 24 November 1747. Eventually 10,000 men joined. The organization was disbanded in 1749 after the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle.

Franklin and Hall also printed documents for the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751, including a promissory note and a certificate given to contributors. Also in 1751, there was a lottery held on behalf of The Academy for the Education of Youth, which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. No surviving tickets are recorded, but again they are attributed to Franklin because he was a founder of the school, chairman of the trustees, and a manager of the lottery. Several lottery tickets, however, survive from the Conestogoe Bridge Lottery. The scheme was advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 10 December 1761. The firm printed 14,000 tickets for twenty-one pounds. The bridge was to be erected over the Conestogoe Creek on the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike.

Among the rarest printed items to survive from the middle years of the eighteenth century are sheet almanacs. Enough of them are extant to suggest that many were printed, but they are rare indeed. In 1730 and 1731, Franklin printed sheet almanacs compiled by Thomas Godfrey. No copies are extant, but in 1731 Franklin sent one hundred copies each to his former journeyman printer Timothy Whitemarsh in Charleston and to his brother James in Newport, Rhode Island. In the fall of 1732, Godfrey decided to compile his almanacs for one of Franklin’s competitors, Andrew Bradford. The loss of the almanac business led Franklin to begin the extremely successful Poor Richard series.20 Franklin and Hall printed The Barbados Almanack late in 1751, presumably for export to the island in the Caribbean. One extant copy was probably retained in Philadelphia. It is interesting to note that the governor’s name has been crossed out and replaced by Mr. Harrison’s, possibly James Harrison, the former lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania. Other changes in the names of the justices are at the foot of the page. The compiler, Theodore Grew, was a mathematician and teacher at the newly established Philadelphia Academy. He had compiled almanacs from the 1730s on.

Franklin derived about eight hundred pounds a year from the business after his retirement in 1748. His income, however, was not entirely dependent upon his printing. Early in his career, in 1733, he started to manufacture printers’ ink, and he sold it widely, as far north as Boston. In 1734 he started a business collecting rags that he could sell to papermakers or exchange for paper. He consigned some 75,000 pounds of rags to papermakers from 1735 to 1741.21 He was careful to provide printed material that was paid for directly by customers or that would have a ready market. Like his colonial peers, he knew better than to speculate on the printing of substantial works of science or letters. Wroth wrote that "he and they realized, probably, that, except within certain narrow categories, there was little sale for the book published with an American imprint. The imported book was the thing. Inventories of colonial libraries, north and south, are heavy with titles of British production; rarely does an American-printed work appear upon them."22 Franklin published works of utility for the residents of Philadelphia and beyond. Currency, book labels, theater and lottery tickets, receipts, advertisements, and the legal and commercially necessary blank forms helped make society run smoothly and in an orderly fashion. Franklin met the needs of the people through his printing press just as he did through the establishment of libraries, fire companies, and learned societies.


1. Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America, Marcus A. McCorison, ed. (Barre, Mass.: The Imprint Society, 1970), 110.

2. C. William Miller, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 1728-1766. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974), xxii.

3. George Simpson Eddy, "A Work-Book of the Printing House of Benjamin Franklin and David Hall 1759-1766" (New York: New York Public Library, 1930), 3.

4. Peter J. Parker, in "The Philadelphia Printer: A Study of an Eighteenth-Century Businessman" (Business History Review 40 [1966]: 24-46), provides an excellent overview of some of these points.

5. Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1964), 216.

6. Miller, Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 326.

7. Lawrence C. Wroth, Benjamin Franklin: Printer At Work (New York: [Privately Printed], 1974), 33-34.

8. Miller, Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 6.

9. Stephen Botein, "‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers," Perspectives in American History 9(1975): 143.

10. An Act for the more effectual Suppressing profane Cursing and Swearing (Philadelphia: B. Franklin, 1746). See Miller, Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 208. No copy of this broadside is extant; it is known by a notice about it in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 April 1746.

11.Miller, Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 6.

12. Ibid., 54.

13. Eric P. Newman, "Newly Discovered Franklin Invention: Nature Printing on Colonial and Continental Currency," The Numismatist (1964), 14.

14. Miller, Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 443.

15. Ibid., 18.

16. George B. Tatum, Penn’s Great Town (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1961); and Sandra L. Tatman and Roger W. Moss, Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects: 1700-1930 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985).

17. Wroth, The Colonial Printer, 225.

18. Miller, Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 431.

19. Ibid., 417.

20. John T. Winterich, Early American Books & Printing (New York: Dover, 1981; reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935), 84.

21.Wroth, Benjamin Franklin Printer At Work, 40-44.

22. Ibid., 52-53.

This article first appeared in Ephemera News or The Ephemera Journal, publications of The Ephemera Society of America, Inc. Ephemera Society Reprinted by permission. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without their express written permission.



Return to Member Articles