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Houdon bust of Benjamin Franklin

“Leather Apron Men: Benjamin Franklin & Philadelphia’s Artisans,” an illustrated talk by Jay Robert Stiefel


In 1740, Franklin would have the readers of his Pennsylvania Gazette believe that he was no more than “a poor ordinary Mechanick of this City.” They knew better. America’s earliest printing magnate, Franklin became a role model for other Philadelphia artisans striving to elevate themselves. By witty anecdote and lampooning editorial, Franklin’s newspaper promoted talent over birth and fostered public appreciation of the artisan. Meanwhile, the enduring cultural institutions which he founded, such as the Library Company of Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society, bestowed upon artisanal minds opportunities for enlightenment elsewhere reserved for the privileged. That Philadelphia artisans came to be held in high esteem by their fellow citizens was no surprise to Franklin. According to him: “The People have a saying, that God Almighty is himself a Mechanic - the greatest in the Universe - and he is respected and admired more for the Variety, Ingenuity, and Utility of his Handiworks - than from Antiquity of his Family.” “Handiworks” of Franklin and other admired Philadelphia artisans will be illustrated. Jay Stiefel is a lawyer, collector and historian of American decorative arts. He studied history at the University of Pennsylvania and Christ Church, Oxford, and is a frequent lecturer in this country and abroad, most recently at Winterthur and the American Museum in Britain. His writings include: “Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753: the Account Book of John Head, Joiner” (American Philosophical Society, 2001), available gratis online at http://www.amphilsoc.org/bulletin/20011/head.htm; “Rococo & Classicism in Proprietary Philadelphia” (the Library Company for the Welcome Society, 2008); and articles on the library's clocks and scientific instruments, the artist-turned-banker F. M. Drexel, and Philadelphia colonial craftsmen such as pewterer Simon Edgell and silversmith Joseph Richardson, Sr. His research on the influence of the circus on 18th-century American decorative arts is to be published this spring. Talk is at 5pm, Jan. 26. IMAGE: Marble bust of Franklin, 1779, by Jean-Antoine Houdon (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Yale University
Hall of Graduate Studies, Room #211
320 York Street
New Haven, Connecticut

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