Romancing History

Tag: Benjamin Franklin

7 Little Known Facts from America’s Early Years

As a history buff, I love a good story or an interestingly odd fact from the past. Here are seven snippets I’ve discovered about life in 17th and 18th century America!

1) Wall Street, or “de Waalstraat” in the original Dutch, received its name in 1644, when a wall was constructed around lower Manhattan to protect cattle from marauding Indians. During the 17th century, Wall street was also a market for slave trading and the site of Federal Hall, the city’s first government center.

2) Margaret James, of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was the first person convicted of witchcraft in America. She was executed on June 15, 1648, nearly 50 years before the beginning of the Salem witch trials.

3) The first Bible printed in America was printed in 1663—in the Algonquin language. John Eliot, a pastor in Roxbury, Massachusetts, learned the dialect in the hopes of developing a written language to evangelize the Algonquin people. The book, which became known as “Eliot’s Indian Bible,” took more than ten years to translate into the Natick dialect of the Algonquin people. Eliot was assisted by John Sassmon, a member of the local tribe, whose ability to speak and write English proved invaluable to the project.

4) For wearing silk clothes, which were above their station, thirty young men were arrested in 1675 in New England. Thirty-eight women were arrested  for the same offense in Connecticut.

5) The Scarlet Letter, a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was inspired by a Puritan law against adultery passed in 1695. The law required people convicted of the offense to wear a letter “A” on a conspicuous part of their clothing for the remainder of their lives. Adulterers were also liable to receive a severe whipping of forty lashes and were required to sit on the gallows with chains about their necks for at least an hour. Harsh as these penalties were, only a few years earlier the punishment for adultery was execution.

6) In 17th and 18th century America, it was customary to provide funeral guests with gifts such as a black scarf, a pair of black gloves,  or a mourning ring. One Boston minister noted that he possessed several hundred rings and pairs of black gloves. During the Revolutionary War the custom of giving scarves and gloves was abandoned since the items could no longer be imported. Instead, people began using black armbands as a sign of mourning.

7) Poor Richard’s Almanack was a yearly publication by Benjamin Franklin who wrote under the pseudonym of “Poor Richard.” The publication circulated continually from 1732 to 1758 with print runs over 10,000 per year, and contained a mixture of household hints, puzzles seasonal weather forecasts and “other amusements.” Poor Richard’s Almanack was also known for witty phrases, some of which you might recognize today.

  • “He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”
  • “Men & Melons are hard to know.”
  • “God works wonders now & then; Behold! A Lawyer an honest Man!”
  • “Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.”
  • “Fish & Visitors stink in 3 days.”
  • “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.”

Your turn. Which of these historical tidbits tickled your fancy?

How a Snake Inspired the American Revolution

Don't Tread on Me Flag courtesy C. WhittenIf you’re anything like me, snakes give you the heebie-jeebies. And like me, you’ve probably seen that “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake plastered on license plates, bumper stickers, hats and t-shirts. I’ve even seen it waived at political rallies on the news but I never understood what it meant…until now. And I’ve learned a snake may be the most frequently occurring symbol used to rally the colonists to unite and break the oppressive rule of the British crown.

Today we know it as the Gadsden Flag with its bright yellow background. But how did it come to represent the liberty sought by our forefathers?

Like so many things, it all began with Benjamin Franklin.

Join_or_DieIn 1751, Franklin wrote a humorous editorial in the Pennsylvania Gazette suggesting that in cordial response to Britain’s policy of sending convicts to America, America should return the favor by sending rattlesnakes to Britain. Years later during the French & Indian War, he resurrected his idea and created this first American political cartoon, a wood carving, using the image of a segmented snake. Urging the thirteen colonies to unite in common defense,  Franklin played on a myth common at the time that a dismembered snake could grow back together if the pieces were realigned before sunset. Each segment is labeled with the initial of one of the thirteen colonies however he lumped all of New England together (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island) under the notation N.E. as the head of the snake, ready to strike.

revere-join-or-dieThis image was reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies, and was often adapted by the publisher. Left is Paul Revere’s modified “Join or Die” serpent from the masthead of the Boston Journal, July 7, 1774.

Historians believe it was Franklin who wrote anonymously to the Pennsylvania Journal as “An American Guesser”, expounding on his use of the snake and advocating for its use as a national symbol:

  • No eye-lids so she is always on the watch, always vigilant.
  • Doesn’t begin an attack, but once in battle, she doesn’t surrender.
  • Her defenses are hidden (in her mouth) so she appears weak. And though the bite is small, it’s deadly.
  • She doesn’t attack until after she gives warning.

Franklin’s reptile resurfaced years later, once again as a symbol to unite Americans against the oppressive Stamp Act. This time the previously segmented viper had transformed into the coiled rattlesnake we recognize today.

Navy-Jack-clip-artAccording to historian Christopher Whitten, in 1775  the Continental Congress got word that two ships would be arriving in America laden with arms and powder to resupply British troops. The Congress authorized the building of  four ships to form the first American Navy and undertook a secret mission to capture those ships and their precious cargo. Colonel Christopher Gadsden, a member of the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress, appointed Commodore Esek Hopkins as the Commodore of the Navy. Believing the Commodore needed his own personal standard, Gadsden presented Hopkins with the yellow, snake-coiled “Don’t Tread on Me” flag . Many speculate that John Paul Jones, first lieutenant aboard the Alfred, most likely ran the standard up the gaff before the mission commenced. The snake even appeared across the red stripes of the first Navy jack.

CMMFlagOnce again, the coiled reptile was reprinted in publications throughout the colonies. Since there was no distinctive American symbol at the time, the “Don’t Tread on Me” image appeared on uniform buttons, banners, and flags. The Culpeper County Virginia Minute Men adopted the iconic coiled rattlesnake on their flag but added the words of Virginia Minute Men Organizer Patrick Henry, “Liberty or Death.” Also seen on currency, the Georgia-snakeseal from a 1778 $20 bill from Georgia (right), Gadsden’s home state, proudly displayed a serpent ready to strike. The new currency was financed by property seized from loyalists. The motto reads “Nemo me impune lacesset,” or “No one will provoke me with impunity.”

Its odd to think that if Franklin had his way, we might revere the snake instead of the bald eagle. While I take great pride in my heritage and the history behind the Gadsden flag, I’m glad this reptilian image remains a symbol of government oppression and not my national identity.

Do you think the snake would have made a good icon for America?



What do April 1, a sundial and Benjamin Franklin all have in common?

What do April 1, a sundial and Benjamin Franklin all have in common?

Answer: The Penny

April first is not just April Fools day, its also National One Cent Day and the penny can trace its lineage to one of America’s favorite founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin designed the first United States one cent coin minted in 1787.

Fugio One Cent Coin

Fugio One Cent Coin

Franklin’s coin was much larger than today’s penny, nearly the size of a half-dollar.  At that time, people expected coins to contain close to their face value in metal. The first official one cent coin has become known as the Fugio Cent to coin collector’s in reference to the Latin phrase “Fugio” (Latin: I flee/fly) engraved on the reverse side of the coin along with the images of a sun shining down on a sun dial. Beneath the sundial appeared the phrase, “Mind Your Business.” The image and the words form a rebus meaning that “time flies, do your work.”

The reverse side of the coin featured a chain of 13 links, each representing one of the original thirteen colonies. Inside the circle chain was engraved the motto “We Are One”. Gold and silver coins transitioned to the motto “E pluribus unum” (Latin: Out of Many, One) from the Great Seal of the United States.

Flying Eagle Penny

Flying Eagle Penny

By the 1850s, the United States Treasury was looking to reduce the size and composition of the one-cent coin to make it easier to handle and more economical to mint. In 1857 the United States Government introduced the Flying Eagle cent. This was the first one cent coin minted in the exact diameter of the modern penny you have in your pocket. Although somewhat thicker and heavier, the Flying Eagle was also the first penny composed of copper and nickel.

Indian Head Penny

Indian Head Penny

The design changed again in 1859 portraying the Goddess of Liberty wearing an Indian headdress. The Indian head penny remained in circulation until 1909 when it was replaced by the image of President Lincoln issued for the 100th anniversary of the assassinated president’s birth and still graces the face of the one cent coin. Today’s penny is made of copper and zinc and the Union Shield is engraved on the reverse side replacing the Lincoln Memorial which had been there since 1959.

Although pennies may be the smallest denomination of United States currency, they’ve had a huge impact on American expressions concerning both saving and spending money. Some of the oldest sayings use the word “penny” as a way of identifying a minimal amount, low-cost  or limited value.

saving penniesThe proverb “a penny spar’d is twice got” encourages frugality. By declining to spend a penny and to save one’s money instead, you are a penny up rather than a penny down, hence ‘twice got’. “A penny saved is a penny earned” is another thrifty axiom often falsely attributed to Benjamin Franklin. First published in Pall Mall magazine in 1899, the maxim implies that even small bits of money are important though many people don’t think a penny is really worth saving.

If you’re experiencing a bad turn of events, then you might find yourself “without two pennies to rub together.” This expression is often muttered by those who tend to spend their money as soon as they get it. Thus, they never seem to have any cash in their pocket.


Here are some other common English phrases using the word penny:

Penny Pincher: a bargain hunter or someone who is always trying to get a good deal

Pretty Penny: an expression used to describe an expensive or extravagant item

Penny wise and pound foolish: someone who watches small expenditures while making unwise investments or squanders money on frivolous expensive purchases

In for a penny, in for a pound: when a good opportunity finally comes your way  you’re willing to risk whatever you have in the venture

Penny Dreadfuls: serial stories printed on cheap pulp paper selling for one cent per issue

Penny ante poker: a poker game between players not willing to risk much cash

Although I can’t afford to give each of you “a penny for your thoughts,” I hope you have a little more respect for the smallest coin in your wallet.

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