‘Fun with Franklin’: An Old City event re-enacts Ben Franklin’s arrival to Philly 300 years ago

The American Philosophical Society hired actors to honor the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s first day in Philadelphia.

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A Benjamin Franklin re-enactor, holding three bread loaves in his hands, looks into the distance

Philadelphia celebrated 300 years since the Benjamin Franklin arrived in the city with a re-enactment on October 6, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Shiny black loafers clicked on Old City’s stone streets, the polished brass buckles gleaming in the mid-morning sun.

Those footsteps are 17-year-old Benjamin Franklin’s first steps into Philadelphia.

Not the actual Franklin, of course. The American Philosophical Society and partner organizations hired actors to honor the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s first day in Philadelphia on Oct. 6, 1723.

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The young actor, fully in character, held three rolls of puffy rolls — young Franklin’s first meal in the city, according to historical accounts.

An actor playing Benjamin Franklin walks near the riverfront with three large bread loaves in his hands.
History lovers followed a young Benjamin Franklin re-enactor carrying “three great puffy rolls,” per Franklin’s own account, in a procession from Philadelphia’s River Front to its historic district to celebrate 300 years since Franklin arrived in the city on October 6, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In a commemorative ceremony Friday morning, crowds of present-day Philadelphians followed the young Franklin, who donned a burgundy 18th-century working suit, from the Independence Seaport Museum to the lawn at the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery.

A Benjamin Franklin re-enactor walks down the street, followed by a crowd of spectators.
History lovers followed a young Benjamin Franklin re-enactor carrying “three great puffy rolls,” per Franklin’s own account, in a procession from Philadelphia’s River Front to its historic district to celebrate 300 years since Franklin arrived in the city on October 6, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As he meandered through the city, young Ben stopped and locked eyes with a young Deborah Read in a white bonnet, moments after he disembarked off the Delaware River at Penn’s Landing.

An actor playing Deborah Read, dressed in Revolutionary War-era clothing, stands in a garden.
Deborah Read encounters a young Benjamin Franklin during a re-enactment of Frankin’s arrival to Philadelphia to celebrate its 300th anniversary on October 6, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Experts say that was a pivotal encounter.

“It’s a nice way to think about the moment that Franklin first becomes a Philadelphian. Within the first few minutes, he’s associating [his arrival] with … the woman in his life,” says Brenna Holland, assistant director of library operations at the American Philosophical Society.

The event, “300 Years of Franklin in Philadelphia,” was presented by APS and partner organizations, which included The Library Company of Philadelphia, Independence Seaport Museum, the Carpenters’ Company, Christ Church, Historic Philadelphia, Inc., Independence Historical Trust, Independence National Historic Park, King & Cabouli Direct Marketing, Inc., and High Street Philly.

The Philadelphia Boys Choir kicked off the commemoration on the steps of the Second Bank of America, followed by key speakers such as Michael Barsanti, Library Company of Philadelphia; Michael Norris, Carpenters’ Hall; state Rep. Mary Isaacsons; Philadelphia City Councilmember Mark Squilla; General Wesley Craig, Retired Adjutant General of the Pennsylvania National Guard; and Gov. Josh Shapiro’s representative Anthony Luker, the Director of the governor’s Southeast regional office.

Among Franklin’s many achievements was his impact on Philadelphia and ideas about government, which state Rep. Mary Isaacson highlighted in her speech.

“I happen to have the great honor of sitting in speaker Franklin’s seat in the Pennsylvania state House,” Isaacson said, followed by applause. “When I am walking through the halls of Harrisburg, [I] remind myself often of what he brought to this commonwealth in his beliefs of what government should be, how it should assist us and protect us.”

A crowd outside of the American Philosophical Society
The American Philosophical Society hosted a ceremony celebrating 300 years since the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia on October 6, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The date of Franklin’s arrival to Philadelphia, Oct. 6, 1723, was discovered by the late scholar Claude-Ann Lopez, who was working on the Benjamin Franklin Papers project at Yale University in the 1980s.

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Some 30 years ago, she spotted an annotation scribbled in brown ink on the back of the letter from Franklin’s banker. It looks like an itinerary.

“Sunday, 6 — Philadelphia.”

Benjamin Franklin's notes on display
Notes made by Benjamin Franklin identifying the day he arrived in Philadelphia from Boston, on display at the American Philosophical Society’s Library Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Visitors had a chance to see this letter in-person after the procession. For historians and Franklin enthusiasts alike, the day is one to remember.

“It’s special that we can know that with specificity and celebrate it and have a little fun with Franklin,” Holland said.

Oct. 6, 2023 marks the 300th year, to the day, when the founding father we know as the inventor, philosopher and, later in life, abolitionist, Ben Franklin landed here, in Philadelphia.

For those who missed the event, the APS has announced a second Franklin celebration Oct. 18 — the launch of their Franklin Ledger’s project. The staff have digitized and transcribed all of Benjamin Franklin’s ledgers, postal and account books at the American Philosophical Society, which contains roughly 70% of Franklin’s letters, books and more.

They have created an open data project for visitors to discover the world of Franklin’s business and see who he was interacting with.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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