A long and convoluted train of thought involving the leaves on the trees outside my office window, using those leaves in some table-setting photos, setting the Thanksgiving table, turkey and Ben Franklin inspired today’s post.
It got me wondering whether Mr. Franklin had much silver in his household. We know about Thomas Jefferson’s silver cups from our quick look earlier this summer. I knew from a famous story (recounted below) that Franklin had at least 1 silver spoon.
Benjamin Franklin is more commonly associated with notions of frugality and hard work than images of dining at a table with silver. He did indeed achieve wealth, mainly through his work as a printer, and apparently his household began to reflect that wealth.
How did he reconcile frugality with luxury?
Unostentatious Display“Benjamin Franklin is well-known for his aphorisms – usually printed
in his almanacs and public essays ⎯ promoting frugality, hard work,
and plain living as the road to success. This does not mean that
Franklin was opposed to wealth, nor that his later acquisition of
luxury goods was hypocritical. What mattered to Franklin was how
one achieved wealth (honestly) and how one displayed it (unostentatiously). Indeed, the growing personal wealth of American colonists
in the mid 1700s was taken by Franklin as a proud sign of the
colonies’ success within the empire and their future value to the
world. Presented here are selections from his public and personal
writings, spanning six decades, on economic success, wealth, luxury and virtue. When do riches betray a lack of virtue? When does wealth signify the rewards of virtue?” – The National Humanities Center, Becoming American: The Atlantic Colonies 1690-1763
I tried to calculate how much “three and twenty shillings” or several Hundred Pounds” would amount to now, but unfortunately was unable to determine an amount. However, that little rabbit hole did lead to this fascinating article about Money in colonial America, and further helps us to understand why “plate” (as household silverware was called then) was such an important component of personal wealth. Not only was silver portable and easily liquified, but it was a relatively stable currency.
As alluded to in his biography, that single spoon soon had companions in the Franklin household. We can see a fantastic selection of them thanks to the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary organization. While many, many silver patterns are named after him, I am not aware of any piece of silver bearing Benjamin Franklin’s name in the same way the Jefferson cup or Revere Bowl does. Perhaps having an eponymous piece of silver would be a bit over-the-top? 😉
Franklin’s philosophy of unostentatious display is very appealing to me. What about you? Do you think acquisition and use of a luxury good like silver can be considered unostentatious under any circumstances?