For the Record: Young Ben Franklin

Young Ben Franklin

University Archives and Records Center

Most images of Benjamin Franklin the printer, the scholar, the scientist, and the diplomat depict him in the later years of his life. But Penn is home to a rare likeness of Franklin when he was about the age of a typical college freshman.

Located outside Weightman Hall, and set 15 feet above ground level, a bronze statue shows Franklin confidently striding along, carrying all his worldly possessions in a bulky bundle.

The concept for the statue was conceived in 1902 by two sophomores who believed there should be a memorial to indicate that Franklin founded the University. The idea spread to classmates, and at graduation in 1904, the class decided it would dedicate a memorial to the University at its 10-year reunion.

Sculptor R. Tait McKenzie, who was also the head of Penn’s Department of Physical Education, was commissioned to create the eight-foot-tall statue. McKenzie and the representatives of the Class of 1904 decided the statue of Franklin should show him as he looked at age 17, when he first came to Philadelphia in 1723.

The image of Franklin, when he had few personal belongings, no job, and was unknown, was designed to inspire students to make something of themselves through their education at Franklin’s university. 

On one of the sides of the statue’s base is a quotation taken from a letter Franklin sent to his son: “I have been the more particular in this description of my journey that you may compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there.”

On the other side is a statement describing the purpose of the statue: “This memorial, dedicated at the Tenth Reunion of the Class of 1904, is a tribute to the inspiration and example of the founder of the University to many generations of sons of Pennsylvania.”

McKenzie studied portraits and busts of Franklin as an older man to compose an image of how he may have looked as a teenager. In an article for Century Magazine in 1914, McKenzie wrote about the process of creating the statue: “An old head was modeled on young shoulders. Then came the task of bringing it back to youth, giving it the expression of boyish enthusiasm, without losing the high-arched brow, the prominent eyes, or the quizzical lines of the mouth, which became fixed and characteristic of the old man.”

For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.

Originally published on April 12, 2012