Happy Birthday, Ben Franklin

Anton Hohenstein (American, born Germany, 1823-1872) | Franklin’s Reception at the Court of France, 1778 | 1860 | Library of Congress

We still celebrate the birth of the great statesman more than 300 years later. But what about during his lifetime? Here’s what we know about Franklin and birthdays.

He had two birthdays. Franklin was born in Boston on January 6, 1706. But in 1752, Great Britain switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and skipped 11 days. So Franklin’s birthday became January 17. In 1773 he wrote to his wife, Deborah Franklin, “I feel still some Regard for this Sixth of January, as my old nominal Birth-day.”

We don’t know how (or if) he celebrated his birthday. In general, birthdays weren’t celebrated in colonial America. For most people, the anniversary of the day they were born was spent like any other day.

His family and friends, however, did celebrate his birth. In 1768, Franklin’s cousin, Eleanor Morris, wrote that she and her cousins enjoyed a plum pudding to mark his “Happy Day.” And in 1783, while Franklin was serving as ambassador to France, his daughter, Sarah Bache, wrote that she had 60 children over for “a little dance” to mark his birthday “in the most festive Manner in my power. … I have not the least doubt but they wish Grandpa’s birth day would happen once a week.”

And Franklin feted others’ birthdays. In 1771, he celebrated with his grandson; at dinner they had a “floating island,” a French meringue dessert. In 1767, Franklin sent a birthday poem to Mary Stevenson Hewson, the daughter of his London landlady:

You’d have the Custom broke, you say,
That marks with festive Mirth your natal Day;
“Because as one grows old,
One cares not to be told,
How many of one’s Years have pass’d away.”

If Franklin had a birthday cake, it was probably fruitcake. In Franklin’s day, special occasion cakes were usually dense fruitcake or equally heavy yeasted cakes. The modern cakes we associate with birthdays didn’t make an appearance until the mid-1800s.

And no one sang “Happy Birthday.” The ubiquitous song (actually titled “Happy Birthday to You”) wasn’t published until 1893. Friends might have wished Franklin “many happy returns” instead. 

Image: Anton Hohenstein (American, born Germany, 1823-1872) | Franklin’s Reception at the Court of France, 1778 | 1860 | Library of Congress



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