Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Fizeaux, Grand & Cie., 29 October 1779

To Fizeaux, Grand & Cie.

Copy: Library of Congress

The following letter is the earliest dated clue in Franklin’s papers to a meeting in Passy which, at the time, left virtually no trace, but which resulted in Franklin’s quietly ordering a substantial quantity of British printing supplies. The meeting, which took place in June, 1779, was with two of London’s leading suppliers: William Caslon III, the typefounder, and the stationer James Woodmason.

Caslon and Woodmason had traveled to Paris in mid-June at the suggestion of Lord Shelburne, in order to try to sell their goods to Caron de Beaumarchais. The playwright, who was preparing to launch a complete edition of Voltaire’s works, had asked Shelburne’s advice on the selection of a typeface and paper, as British printing supplies were so far superior to the French.5

Shelburne sent Caslon and Woodmason to Paris with a letter of introduction to his close friend, the abbé Morellet. Morellet, in turn, directed the pair to Beaumarchais, sometime around June 25.6 Although Beaumarchais ultimately rejected Caslon’s type (he bought the Baskerville foundry instead), Caslon had some success at the home of Benjamin Franklin, his family’s old friend and client, and neighbor of Morellet.

Franklin had known three generations of Caslons. As a Philadelphia printer he had ordered type from the famous Caslon the elder, and as of 1753 dealt with his successor, Caslon the younger. During his years in England, Franklin continued to patronize Caslon II, whose son William attended school with Temple. After his father’s death in 1778, William Caslon III helped his mother run the foundry, and fourteen years later, established an independent shop.7

Morellet had never seen type or paper to rival what the two Englishmen were offering. Caslon’s type lived up to its reputation. As for the vellum-like wove paper brought by Woodmason, manufactured according to a technique unknown in Europe, its smooth surface seemed the perfect medium on which to display the delicate English typefaces.8 Morellet engaged his visitors in long discussions of printers’ arts. Franklin was undoubtedly present at some of these conversations.9

Among Franklin’s papers at the American Philosophical Society is an undated list in his hand, entitled, “Order to M. Caslon.” We believe that this is a copy of an order handed directly to Caslon in late June, with instructions that it be shipped to Amsterdam. This type, we presume, is the subject of the letter printed below. The list is as follows:

100 lbs. Five Lines Pica } all Roman if no Italic
 80 lbs. Four Line Pica
 60 lbs. French Canon Rom & Ital
 60 lbs. Two Lines Great Primmer Rom & Ital
 60 lbs. Two Lines English
 60 lbs. Two Lines Pica Rom & Ital
 80 lbs. Double Pica No 2 Rom & Ital
100 lbs. Paragon
300 lbs. Great Primmer Rom & Ital
12 Ream of large fine thick Post

In late November or early December, Franklin ordered from Caslon an additional 96 pounds of Two Line Double Pica, to be sent, as this was, care of his Amsterdam bankers.1 The initial order, packed in eight boxes, arrived in Passy in April, 1780. The second order, which filled one box, was sent on January 27; we have no record of its arrival.2

Although these boxes were stored in the Passy print shop, the type does not seem to have been used in France.3 Franklin apparently talked about sending it to America, yet the boxes were still at Passy when Benny Bache packed the printing equipment in 1785, and the type is listed in Franklin’s inventory of Passy fonts made after his return to Philadelphia.4 It was inherited by Benny Bache, and exhibited on his specimen sheet for the Market Street printing office.5

A portion of Woodmason’s paper, on the other hand, had an immediate and particular application. Franklin ordered two of the reams to be marbled, expressly for the certificates he would issue for installments of French government loans, the first of which had arrived on June 10.6 The paper took longer to manufacture than the type had; it was ready at the end of December, and would not arrive in Passy until the end of May, 1780. What Franklin did with the unmarbled balance of this order may yet become clear as the present edition continues.

Passy, Oct. 29. 1779.


I have advice from England that 8 boxes of Printing Characters are sent from London, to your Care for me, If they are arrived, I request you would ship them to Rouen, address’d to Mr. Holker here. I suppose you have Dutch Vessels frequently going there. Their Value is about 100£ sterling, which I desire you to get insur’d.7 Whatever Charges you are at, I shall repay with Thanks. I have the honour to be, with great Esteem, Gentlemen Y. m. o. & m. h. s.

Messrs. Fizeaux & Grand

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

5See Morton, Beaumarchais Correspondance, I, xxiii–xxiv; Brian N. Morton, “Beaumarchais et le prospectus de l’édition de Kehl,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, LXXXI (1971), 133–8; John Dreyfus, “The Baskerville Punches 1750–1950,” The Library, 5th ser., V (1951), 32–3.

6Dorothy Medlin, Jean-Claude David, Paul LeClerc, eds., Lettres d’André Morellet (1 vol. to date, Oxford, 1991—), I, 396.

7DNB; John Findlay McRae, Two Centuries of Typefounding … (London, 1920), pp. 61–2. For BF’s initial dealings with the grandfather and father, see III, 14; V, 82–3.

8Wove paper, invented in China, was rediscovered in England around 1750, by either John Baskerville or James Whatman. Its first British appearance was in Baskerville’s highly acclaimed edition of Virgil (Birmingham, 1757), to which BF subscribed: VIII, 53; IX, 257. Whatman’s paper mill was the primary manufacturer of wove paper, and by 1780, Woodmason was Whatman’s chief distributor. Dard Hunter, Papermaking (2nd ed., New York, 1947), pp. 125–8; Thomas Balston, James Whatman, Father & Son (New York and London, 1979), pp. 51–2.

9Medlin et al., Lettres d’André Morellet, I, 396–7. In his letter to Shelburne of [c. June 25], just cited, Morellet also wrote of a new, as yet unannounced discovery: a smaller, less expensive, printing press. This was the machine invented by the abbé Rochon, based on an idea of BF’s, which Rochon would present to the académie des sciences on Aug. 19, 1780. Procès-verbaux, XCIX, 206.

1Caslon to WTF, Dec. 7, 1779, APS.

2BF to Fizeaux, Grand & Cie., April 23, 1780, Library of Congress; Caslon to WTF, March 10, 1780, APS.

3The boxes of type appear on an inventory of Jan. 27, 1781 (APS), but the type is not evident on any extant issue of the Passy press.

4Hints that the type was destined for America can be found in letters from Caslon and Henry Grand, March 10 and 14, 1780. BFB’s notation from 1785 is on the inventory cited above; BF’s later inventory is undated. All documents cited here are at the APS.

5A facsimile of the specimen accompanies [Douglas Crawford McMurtrie], Benjamin Franklin, Typefounder (New York, 1925).

6Woodmason to BF, [Dec. 25] (APS); BF to Ferdinand Grand, May 30, 1780 (Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, Smithsonian Institution). See also our annotation to the French loan certificate, Sept. 16, above, and XXIX, 594n.

7BF paid for the order out of personal funds; the previous day he had sent £100 to be deposited with his London banker (to Browns & Collinson, Oct. 28, above). The total came to £70.8.0: BF to Brown, Collinson & Tritton, Jan. 10, 1780, APS.

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