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Celebrate Benjamin Franklin’s Birthday

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin! Franklin would have turned 303 years old on January 17, 2009. What was everyday life like in his Philadelphia household at Franklin Court, now part of Independence National Historical Park? Would archeology show his love of beer, experiments with electricity, pithy sense of humor, and keen intellect?

Franklin Court was the site of a mansion built under Franklin’s direction between 1763-65. Archeology found evidence of his tinkering proclivities, such as contrivances to carry away steam and smoke from the kitchen, ducts and dampers to heat the house, and a refrigerating pit to keep foodstuffs cool. Artifacts attest to household activities and preferences. The Franklins purchased kitchen wares like wide-mouthed jugs or heavy platters locally, but obtained fine tablewares from Europe and Asia. They preferred beef to lamb or pork, and oysters to clams. A punch bowl points to entertaining and family recipes for party punches. Franklin lived at the house in 1775-1776, a key period in the development of America as a nation independent from Great Britain. He also lived at Franklin Court from 1785 until his death in 1790.

Excavations recovered hints of Franklin’s projects. During the Enlightenment Era of the 18th and 19th centuries, curious Americans used scientific processes to investigate the unknown, such as why animals in the past looked different from animals in the present. A fossilized mastodon tooth found beneath Franklin’s house is an archeologically-analyzed paleontological artifact that points to Franklin’s involvement in the scientific movement. Mastodons were ancient elephant-like creatures that lived over 10,000 years ago in America. Archeologists believe that the tooth belonged to Franklin. Listen to an archeologist talk about the mastodon tooth in a podcast.

Visit Franklin Court to see artifacts and exhibits where Franklin’s contributions to American history as an everyday person doing extraordinary things took place. Archeology in the 1950s recovered the kitchen and privy pits, but not enough of the main house for a complete and accurate reconstruction. A “ghost structure” – a frame in the shape of the house – was built instead. Today, visitors can peer through portals to see the privy pits, wells, and foundations. An underground museum goes into depth about Franklin’s life at Franklin Court. Also in Philadelphia, visit the Franklin National Memorial at the Franklin Institute Science Museum.

Other places on the Web provide complementary approaches to archeology at Franklin Court. See how historical architects analyzed the structures at Franklin’s Court and a museum collection of objects with a close association with Franklin.

Archeology at Independence National Historical Park offers teachers with a way for their students to make the historical figures of the American Revolution seem more real through the objects they left behind. The Independence Park Institute has a lesson plan (.pdf, 4MB) to learn more about archeology and Benjamin Franklin's neighborhood: see a 10-minute movie (.mov, 66MB).

Archeology has played an important role in recovering lost information about the people and contradictions of life in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary Era. Franklin Court offers one way to learn more.

  • Mastodon tooth found in Ben's basement.
  • Wireframe 'ghost' of Franklin's house.
  • Franklin's fine silver tankard. Bottoms up!
  • Franklin's privy, a repository of...history.