The reconstruction of Benjamin Franklin’s private library obsessed our former Librarian Edwin Wolf 2nd for 44 years. That obsession took hold of him at the estate sale of Franklin Bache (a Franklin descendant) at Freeman’s in 1947.Bache had put homemade cloth wrappers, on which he had typed LIBRARY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, around many of the books in the sale. Most of them had no other sign of Franklin’s ownership, and were knocked down for three to five dollars each. “Even the volumes with presentation inscriptions to Franklin or bearing his name in a contemporary hand on a cover,” Wolf later wrote, “went for prices which can only be described as dwarf low. What mass psychology convinced the audience at the sale that, in spite of evidence to the contrary, none of the books had really belonged to Franklin I do not know. Perhaps, it was Franklin Bache’s amateurish attempt to establish the pedigree by putting wrappers on all the books which shrieked the fact.” It didn’t take Wolf long to realize he had missed the opportunity of a lifetime. As he wrote in 1962, “I am now convinced that all these books came from the house on Franklin Court after its owner’s death, and were all part of Franklin’s library.”For the rest of his life he pursued the books that were in that sale, and what he learned from them led him to many others.(His catalog of Franklin’s books, completed by Kevin Hayes and published by the Library Company in 2006, lists 3,740 titles.)But most of the books in the Bache sale eluded him because their buyers threw the seemingly bogus wrappers away.
This year we had the amazing good fortune to acquire three of these books still in Bache’s cloth wrappers, the only examples of those wrappers we know of. They are John Dryden’s sensationally bloody adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus (London, 1735), which came from the collection of the great Franklin collector Stuart Karu, and two others newly discovered by an antiquarian bookseller--a 1773 Philadelphia edition of a British anti-monarchical pamphlet called The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms, and the printed Journal of the Continental Congress for 1783-84. They are all intriguing books for Franklin to have owned, the first two exploring the many ways kings have come to grief, and the third documenting the American victory in a war against the King of England, funded (as Franklin knew better than anyone) by the King of France. There is no denying these are great books, but it is those homely wrappers that we really love.
We are deeply grateful to Trustee Clarence Wolf for the assistance and financial support that enabled us to acquire these books.