As it turns out, the day I wrote this was Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday. Writer, typographer, printer, publisher, politician, inventor, statesman, gentleman scientist, linguist, librarian, and the first Postmaster General of the United States, Franklin was the consummate networker. Distributing his ideas far and wide through a dizzying range of practices, he established a network of printing franchises by sending former apprentices to set up shop in new towns and collecting dues. He traveled extensively to London and to the courts of France, fostering alliances that helped form a nation. He wrote incisive arguments and entertainments under a constellation of pseudonyms including the Casuist, Silence Dogood, Busy-Body, Poor Richard, and J. T. to suit the purpose at hand. He advocated for a paper currency to facilitate the liberal distribution of goods and services while he was also a printer and so stood to make money by printing the paper currency which he lobbied for! He was often working both sides of the equation and I think this compromised quality is what I like about this familiar engraving—his almost-smirk.
He published a weekly newspaper, an occasional magazine, and the annual Poor Richard’s Almanack. Along the way, Franklin pursued his polymathic interests, inventing (a partial list): the medical catheter, the armonica (a musical instrument), a phonetic alphabet, the circulating stove, swim fins, binoculars, and the lightning rod. He founded the first public lending library, a volunteer fire department, the American Philosophical Society, a university, and was the first Postmaster General of the United States. He was a committed generalist.
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Beatrice Warde also used her frontline position in typography as a gateway to injecting her voice into a wider conversation through her writing.
Warde was born in New York City in 1900. Her father was an experimental musician from Germany who developed a chromatic alphabet. Her mother was May Lamberton Becker, a columnist at the New York Herald Tribune at the turn of the 20th century. Beatrice was often involved in her mother’s work at the Herald Tribune, so she had an early appreciation for letters, for typography, for writing, and for editing.
After homeschooling until age twelve, Warde was sent to Horace Mann School, a progressive academy in New York City. She whizzed through her classes in Greek and Latin, everyday skills, and public service. She graduated in two years. From Horace Mann she went to Barnard College, which was a part of Columbia University. There she studied English, French, Latin, writing, and philosophy, among other subjects. Warde was something of a prodigy.