11 Amazing Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Benjamin Franklin

Before he was a Founding Father, the multifaceted, ever-experimental Benjamin Franklin was a great many other things—from street performer to political cartoonist, and even a middle-aged widow. Here are a few highlights of Franklin’s early days.

1. He Was a Great Swimmer

Young Ben was such an aquatic ace that his feats eventually earned him a posthumous induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968. One of his most famous adventures came on a visit to England during which a 19-year-old Franklin swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars (3½ miles) in the Thames and performed a number of aquatic acrobatics to the delight of his compatriots. In addition to his achievements within the water, Franklin was honored for his childhood invention of flippers—worn on the hands, not feet—and his hobby of teaching friends to swim. In fact, he was so proficient that he was invited to open a swimming school in England, an offer he turned down.

2. He Created a Pseudonym to Fool His Brother

At just 16 years old, Ben adopted not just a pseudonym, but an entire pseudo-identity to get his words in print. Confident that his older brother James would never publish his work, Ben wrote a series of letters to James’ paper, The New-England Courant—where Ben was an apprentice—as Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow with sharp, satirical wit. Between April and October of 1722, Ben penned 14 letters as Silence and although they were well received, James was not amused when the dame’s true identity came to light.

3. He Kept Masquerading as a Woman

This was the first but not the last time Franklin would adopt a feminine alter ego in writing. During the course of his life, Franklin’s work would appear in newspapers under bylines such as Polly Baker, Alice Addertongue, Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, and the not-very-creatively-named Busy Body.

4. He Rallied Other Scholars

At 21 years old, Franklin established a weekly discussion group among twelve like-minded men known as Junto. They met each Friday and, according to Franklin’s biography, “every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing on any subject he pleased.” If that sounds like a lot of homework, consider this: Franklin also detailed a list of 24 questions each man should ask himself the day of the meeting.

5. He Was a Librarian

As Junto grew, the group found that it lacked the required resources, namely books, necessary to settle disputes. So in 1731, Franklin convinced his fellow members to pool their resources to purchase a collection of books. A total of 50 founding shareholders originally signed on, and on July 1, the group drafted their Articles of Agreement, thereby founding The Library Company of Philadelphia, which remained the largest public library in the country up until the 1850s.

6. He Created an Iconic Call to Unity

Ben Franklin is responsible for the “Join or Die” drawing, which depicts a snake whose severed parts represent the colonies. He drew it after attending the Albany Congress of 1754 as a chief delegate. It first appeared in Franklin’s paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 9, 1754, and is widely recognized as the first American political cartoon.

7. He Wasn’t That Much of a Turkey Fan

Ben Franklin never said he wanted a turkey, and not the bald eagle, on our national seal. First of all, although he served on an earlier committee that discussed the Great Seal, Franklin ultimately wasn’t on the one that finally settled on the bald eagle. The oft-cited letter in which he calls the eagle a “Bird of bad moral Character” and lauds the turkey as “a much more respectable Bird” wasn’t talking about the country as a whole. Rather, he is writing to his daughter to complain about the Society of the Cincinnati, a military fraternity formed by Revolutionary War officers, whose symbol was also the eagle, one that happened to strongly resemble a turkey.

8. But He Could Find Uses for Turkeys

Although he’s mistakenly remembered as a proponent of turkeys, Franklin once tried to electrocute one of the birds. After bragging to a fellow scientist that his experiments with electricity could be put to use by killing and roasting a turkey via electrical shock, Franklin proposed to do just that for an audience. After several rounds of experiments, Franklin seemed to get the hang of it, but when the time came in 1750 for a demonstration, he ended up shocking himself, leaving him temporarily numb and less temporarily humiliated.

9. He Was a Clever Marketer

A very young Franklin, early in his apprenticeship days, assisted his brother’s newspaper business by composing mini-ballads highlighting the biggest news stories of the day and performing them on street corners. His father quickly discouraged this behavior, claiming that “Verse-makers were always beggars.”

10. He Could Really Talk About Drinking

On January 6, 1737, Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette published 200+ synonyms for the word “drunk” in what was entitled “The Drinkers Dictionary.” The handy list came accompanied by a note from Franklin himself: “The Phrases in this Dictionary are not (like most of our Terms of Art) borrow'd from Foreign Languages, neither are they collected from the Writings of the Learned in our own, but gather'd wholly from the modern Tavern-Conversation of Tiplers. I do not doubt but that there are many more in use; and I was even tempted to add a new one my self under the Letter B, to wit, Brutify'd…”

11. He Had at Least One Surprising Roommate

Franklin knew that you didn’t catch a cold from cold temperatures. This came up one night in 1776 when he and John Adams were forced to share not just a room but a bed. Along with Edward Rutledge, they were on their way to Staten Island to negotiate with Admiral Richard Howe of the Royal Navy for a possible end to the Revolutionary War. The inn they stopped at didn’t have enough rooms for all three men, so Adams and Franklin agreed to shack up but disagreed over what to do with their room’s window. Adams was worried the open window would cause him to become ill but Franklin argued, correctly but contrary to the wisdom of the time, that cool air would not cause either of them to catch a cold.

It’s National Cookie Day! Here’s Where to Score Some Free Treats

UMeimages/iStock via Getty Images
UMeimages/iStock via Getty Images

If you plan on eating as many baked goods as possible this December, now's your chance to get a head start. Today—December 4—is National Cookie Day, and chains across the country are celebrating by handing out free cookies. Here are the best places to snag a treat before the day is over.

    • Great American Cookies, a chain that's concentrated in the southeastern U.S., is marking the day by rewarding members of its loyalty program. If you already have the loyalty app, you can swing by a participating location any time today and pick up your free original chocolate chip cookie without making any additional purchases. The promotion only applies to customers who signed up for the program before midnight on December 3, so you aren't eligible for the free snack if you download the app on your way to the store.
    • The cookie giant Mrs. Fields is also participating in the holiday. Buy anything from one of the chain's stores on December 4 and you'll get a free cookie with your purchase. If you spring for the Nutcracker Sweet Tower, which is made from five festive containers of baked goods, you can send a Mrs. Fields Peace, Love & Cookies 30 Nibbler Tin to a friend for free.
    • But what if you're looking for a free cookie with no strings attached? Surprisingly, a hotel chain may be offering the best deal for National Cookie Day. Throughout December 4, you can stop by a DoubleTree by Hilton and ask for a free cookie at the front desk. DoubleTree provides complimentary cookies to guests at check-in all year round, and every year on National Cookie Day, the hotel chain extends that offer to everyone.

There's no shortage of great cookies across the U.S. If you're willing to travel to satisfy your sweet tooth, here are the best chocolate chip cookies in all 50 states.

License to Bird: Meet the Real James Bond

American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.
American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.

On January 4, 1900, a child was born in Philadelphia. His name was Bond. James Bond. He would not grow up to be a globe-trotting, license-to-kill-carrying playboy spy like the other James Bond. Instead, he became an ornithologist, and lived a fairly quiet, normal life—until someone borrowed his name.  

Bond lived in New Hampshire and England while growing up, and developed an accent that a colleague described [PDF] as an “amalgam of New England, British, and upper-class Philadelphian.” After graduating from Cambridge, Bond returned to the U.S. to work as a banker, but his childhood interests in science and natural history spurred him to quit soon after and join an expedition to the Amazon to collect biological specimens for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

After that, and with no formal training in the field, he started working as an ornithologist at the Academy, and was “among the last of a traditional museum breed, the independently wealthy, nonsalaried curator, who lacked advanced university degrees.” Working at the museum, Bond became an authority on the bird species of the Caribbean, and his 1936 book, Birds of the West Indies, was considered the definitive guide to the region’s birds at the time. 

Despite his many scientific accomplishments—which included dozens of papers about Caribbean and New England birds, more books and field guides, numerous medals and awards and other researchers using the term “Bond’s Line” to refer to the boundary that separates Caribbean fauna by their origin—that book would be what catapulted Bond, or at least his name, to international fame.

In 1961, Bond was reading a London newspaper’s review of the latest edition of his book and found eyebrow-raising references to handguns, kinky sex, and other elements of a life that sounded very unlike his. He and his wife Mary quickly learned that another James Bond was the hero of a series of novels by Ian Fleming, which were popular in the UK but just gaining notice in the U.S. Mary wrote to Fleming to jokingly chastise him for stealing her husband’s name for his “rascal” character. 

Fleming replied to explain himself: He was a birdwatcher and when he was living in Jamaica beginning work on his first spy novel, Birds of the West Indies was one of his bird “bibles.” He wanted his main character to have an ordinary, unassuming name, and when he was trying to drum one up, he remembered the author of the book he turned to so often. “It struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born,” Fleming wrote to Mary. (Fleming later called “James Bond” the “dullest name I’ve ever heard.”)

Fleming told Mary that he understood if they were angry at the theft of Bond’s name, and suggested a trade. “In return I can only offer your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit,” he wrote. “Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” 

He also invited the Bonds to his home in Jamaica, which they took him up on a few years later. During the Bonds’ visit, Fleming gave James a copy of his latest novel, You Only Live Twice, inscribed with the message “To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.”

For the next few decades, until his death at the age of 89, Bond’s famous namesake caused the ornithologist a few minor annoyances. Once, he was supposedly stopped at the airport because officials thought his passport was a fake, and the occasional bank teller would likewise think the same of his checks and refuse to cash them.

Young women would often prank call the Bond house late at night asking to speak to 007, to which Mary would reply: “Yes, James is here. But this is Pussy Galore and he's busy now."

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