Literary Prize 2022 Shortlist

The History of Thanksgiving: An Introduction

Alice Hopkinson explores the history of Thanksgiving and challenges us to rethink the accepted narrative.

Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ of 1621, something that holds a deep, traditional meaning, and has become enshrined in the American cultural conscience. Since George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, Presidents have used the holiday to convey ideals that lie outside the sphere of traditional religiosity and notions of simply ‘giving thanks’ for a bountiful harvest. Proceeding years saw successive Presidents devote their attention towards reaffirming the values of the Founding American Republic, discussing events of the previous year or addressing broader issues affecting the Nation. Whilst this is certainly indicative of a progressing American cultural identity, it is emblematic of Thanksgiving finding its own origin for tradition and subsequently evolving into something far greater and disparate from what it meant at its conception. 

Thanksgiving has developed from a solemn and simple Colonial observance of thanks into an enterprising celebration that encompasses a variety of values, yet holds a far more sinister meaning for the Native American people supposedly crucial to its founding legend. 

The ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth

Those who first settled in the Massachusetts Bay area were those who retreated from England following indignation and persecution for their religious practices. As a somewhat more extreme derivative group of Puritans, the Pilgrims sought to deviate from the practise of religion that had been reformed under King James I, and were therefore at severe risk of persecution if they were to remain in England. Fleeing to the New World in search of religious freedom, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and on Native Wampanoag territory- something that is frequently omitted from contemporary retellings.

Famine and disease had been rampant throughout the voyage, with these poor conditions only becoming worse as the Pilgrims struggled to provide for themselves and build a self-sustaining settlement in this new environment. After a particularly tough winter the Pilgrims received invaluable guidance and assistance from the Wampanoag tribe, who graciously taught the settlers how to live off the land. It is at this instance that the ‘myth’ around the story of the first Thanksgiving becomes increasingly prevalent. The Pilgrims in return thanked the Wampanoag people and, with the first harvest produced, held a dinner to acknowledge their kindness, enshrining in tradition the act of holding a celebration of thanks for instances of recognising gratitude.

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Is this the whole story?

In reality, the peace between the settlers and Native Americans was short lived. Relations between the two groups quickly deteriorated and tensions became more aggravated, particularly with the rapid expansion of European settlements and the vast influx of migration that occurred from the 1630s. As a result, Native Americans were forced out of land that had once been theirs and have since been subject to rampant cultural erasure. This highlights the stark contrast between the seemingly peaceful relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans seen in portrayals of the ‘First Thanksgiving’, and the more sinister reality. 

The origin of tradition

Despite the 1621 Thanksgiving being famously recognised as the ‘first’, it is important to acknowledge that the tradition of giving thanks was a precedent that long predated the 1620 Mayflower voyage, and something that was essentially imported by the European settlers. Colonists observed thanksgivings regularly and even sustained this practice through the Revolutionary era, observing the celebrations for bountiful harvests, victory in battle or for acts of seemingly divine benevolence that had transpired. 

Thanksgiving as a holiday

With George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation offering gratitude for the recent ratification of the Constitution, formation of the American Republic and preservation of “safety and happiness… for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed”, it became possible to acknowledge the shift in meaning of Thanksgiving as a designated holiday held in the public conscience. Whilst Washington does acknowledge the religious sentiments of the occasion and gives thanks for fortune in harvest, he uses similar language to that found in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and spends the majority of his Proclamation affirming the founding values of the Republic- going to great lengths to ensure the people maintain the values enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. 

Presidents since Washington have used Thanksgiving as a means to address the nation in a manner that is somewhat more informal than through official Proclamations or speeches. In each Proclamation, traditional religious values are consistently affirmed, as is the notion of giving thanks to God for the fortunes of the nation. However, each address is unique to the President and is in many ways a way in which to trace the narrative of American history in accordance with the fundamental issues concerning the nation. Last year President Biden marked the 400th anniversary of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ by acknowledging the “generosity and support of the Wampanoag” and compared their actions to those who have dedicated their time to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. A very topical Proclamation, it is one that dedicates itself more to reaffirming familial and traditional values as opposed to those of the nation and Founding Fathers- fitting, considering the context in which it was written. 

Contemporary meaning

Culturally, Thanksgiving has shed much of its religious sentiment in recent years and has become almost unrecognisable from its origin. Maintaining its association to harvests, it has become more familial, with it being tradition for many families to hold a Thanksgiving dinner that incorporates much of the food typically found on the North American continent, the turkey being the most pertinent example of such.

Furthermore, it has evolved to accommodate America as a consumerist nation that thrives on business and a booming economy, with contemporary traditions such as the Macy’s Day Parade, American football games and the amusing White House turkey pardon being the focus of attention throughout the country.

File:President John F. Kennedy receives the 16th White House Thanksgiving Turkey 1963.jpg  File:Macys Thanksgiving Parade (37733875745).jpg File:Thanksgiving 1900.JPG

These new and emerging customs demonstrate how Thanksgiving as a cultural tradition has taken on a new meaning that has adapted and evolved in line with the changing American people. Yet aside from the jubilations brought on by the holiday, it is paramount to bear in mind that these traditions exist only for some. Many Native Americans choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving, serving as a reminder that a whole representative body has been practically omitted from the mainstream teaching of Thanksgiving. This highlights the importance of preserving these narratives. 

To hear a continuation of this discussion, join us on November 25 2022, 5pm GMT/12pm BST.

Author: Alice Hopkinson

House Highlights: Summer Break @ Ben’s House

Here are some of the highlights from our incredible summer season of family events at Benjamin Franklin House!

Over the month of August we held a number of events as part of our Summer Break @ Ben’s House programme. We learned all about Benjamin Franklin, 36 Craven Street and Georgian Britain as well as getting creative with lots of arts and crafts activities.

In our first week we recreated Franklin’s famous Key and Kite experiment using a Tesla Coil in our Student Science Centre. We each got an opportunity to create a bolt of electricity using our Windhurst Machine before heading down to Franklin’s Parlour to build some decorative kites!

Our second week focussed on the art of calligraphy and the importance of letters in 18th century communication. We deciphered one of Franklin’s own letters before writing our own using dip pens and ink. The workshop was certainly the messiest of them all with inky fingers all round! We also created our own parchment paper with some good old fashioned tea-staining.

The focus of our third week moved away from Franklin and on to one of our other famous residents, the anatomist William Hewson, who lived in the House from 1770-1774. We learned about the anatomy school once located in the House and examined our collection of bones that were unearthed in our basement. We then became archaeologists for the day and explored our collection of archaeology tools and artefacts. To end the session we built model skeletons before creating our own skeleton diagrams using cotton wool buds and glue!

The final week of Summer Break @ Ben’s House explored the history of portraiture and saw us learn some valuable skills in art history. We deciphered the symbols in several famous portraits from history before examining a collection of Franklin portraits to learn more about the man behind the canvass. We then got our paint pallets out to create portraits of ourselves to take home and frame for all to see!

First Family Day of 2022! A Georgian Easter Celebration

On Tuesday 4th April 2022, we held our first Family Event of the year! As it was during the Easter Holidays, the theme for the day was a Georgian Easter Celebration.

Our families enjoyed a tour of the House that featured a Benjamin Franklin-themed Easter Egg hunt in each of our historic rooms. Children learned about Georgian Easter traditions alongside some interesting fact about Franklin and the years he spent at 36 Craven Street.

Following this, the families had some fun with Easter inspired arts and crafts. We made Easter bonnets, cards and decorations!

It was a fantastic day for all involved, pictures can be found below. Our next Family Event will be on Tuesday 31st May and is called ‘Inside Benjamin Franklin’s Georgian House.’ This day will teach families the architectural history of 36 Craven Street and Georgian homes. Check out more by going to our event page here.

Benjamin Franklin House and the latest documentary from the renowned filmmaker, Ken Burns

On April 4th and 5th 2022, the latest two-part documentary series from the world-renowned Ken Burns debuts on PBS in the US. His award-winning biopics have been broadcast across the world and have focused on an array of influential Americans such as Muhammad Ali, Ernest Hemmingway and Thomas Jefferson. His latest subject is none other than ‘the First American’ himself, Benjamin Franklin. Across four hours, Burns’ documentary explores the extraordinary life of Dr Franklin and features two of Hollywood’s most recognisable stars, Michael Douglas and Mandy Patinkin, in the starring role.

Benjamin Franklin House is proud to feature in an exclusive behind-the-scenes video detailing the Founding Father’s time in London and at 36 Craven Street. In the clip, our Director, Dr. Márcia Balisciano leads us through the history of the House, from the time Franklin resided here, to the present day and the efforts that have gone in to preserving this fascinating piece of American history.

If you would like to find out more about the documentary and watch the exclusive piece about Benjamin Franklin House, visit Ken Burns: Benjamin Franklin website here.

Science on Stage 2021


Science on Stage, held in partnership with The Royal Institution, illuminates the National Curriculum through a variety of activities which demonstrate how the work of Franklin and scientists at the Ri arose from a spirit of awe and curiosity about the world in which they lived. The content is appropriate for upper Key Stage 2 children with the focus on a range of learning styles to enable all children to benefit from the experience.

You can watch a recording of Science on Stage 2021 below. This year’s event took place virtually on 26 May:

We took our annual Science on Stage event online for the first time in 2021. Our presentations and live demonstrations reached 3368 live participants. 3305 students joined from 60 schools across the country and from a British School in Spain: Holy Trinity Pewley Down School, Guildford; Mosaic Jewish Primary School, Wandsworth; Oxford Gardens Primary School, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea;  Awliscombe C of E Primary School, Honiton; Fairfield Primary School, Croydon; Marian Vian Primary School, Bromley; Heathland School, Harrow; Jubilee Primary School and Children’s Centre, Lambeth; Crocketts Community Primary School, Smethwick, Loughborough Primary School, Lambeth; Herbert Morrison Primary School, Lambeth; Embley, Hampshire; Acorn Academy, Exeter; Belmont Primary School, Hounslow; Falkland Primary School, Berkshire; St Jude’s Primary School, Lambeth; Castlecombe Primary School, Bromley; Y Bont Faen Primary School, Cowbridge; Hallfield Primary School, Westminster; Albert Primary School, Penarth; Orchard Primary School, Lambeth; Normanhurst School, Chingford; Archbishop Summer CofE Primary School, Lambeth; Catmose Primary School, Oakham; The Norwood School, Lambeth; St Giles CofE Primary School, Walsall; St Stephen’s CofE Primary School, Lambeth; Payhembury CofE Primary School; Honiton; St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea; Christchurch Streatham CofE Primary School, Lambeth; Butlers Court School, Beaconsfield; Ashmole Primary School, Lambeth; St Saviour’s CofE Primary School, Lambeth; St Barnabas’ CE Primary School, Westminster; St Cuthbert’s RC Primary School, Cardiff; St Augustine’s Priory, Ealing; Sherfield School, Hook; Smallwood Primary School, Wandsworth; St Nicholas CE Junior School, Newbury; Soho Parish Primary School, Westminster; Squirrels Heath Junior School, Havering; Burdett-Couts & Townsend Federation Primary School, Westminster; St Joseph’s, Croyden; Clapham Manor Primary School & Nursery; Lambeth, Mandeville Primary School, Hackney; Vauxhall Primary School, Lambeth; English Martyrs’ Catholic Primary School, Reading; St Vincent de Paul Catholic Primary School, Westminster; Holy Trinity CofE Primary School, Lambeth; St Dominic’s Catholic Primary School, Hackney; Baden Powell Primary School, Cardiff; Ton Pentre Junior School, Pentre; Shiphay Learning Academy, Torquay; The Priory Primary School, Tadley; Marshwood Academy, Axminster; Fairlawn Primary School, Lewisham; ; Gospel Oak Primary & Nursery School, Camden; Gwauncelyn Primary School, Pontypridd; Morton CE Primary School, Bourne; Oakfield Preparatory School, Lambeth. 63 home educated students also joined us from all over the UK: London, Norfolk, Bletchley, Sherfield on Loddon, Reading, Eastleigh, Corsham, Failsworth, Potters Bar, Hermitage, Rickmansworth, Southampton, Northampton, Meldreth, Llandysul, Swindon, Basingtoke, Rooks Bridge, Stevenage, Cambridge, Cardiff, Stanford le Hope, Bradford, New Bradwell.

Feedback has been incredibly positive:

Thank you for the brilliant workshop. We learned a lot and have been looking more into Benjamin Franklin since the session. We’re very interested in music, so delved a bit deeper into his instrument.

Thank you, children love the WOW factor moments!

The children really enjoyed the event. They particularly liked the explosions and the stories behind the science. Thank you.

Mary Robinson receives Benjamin Franklin House Medal for Leadership


Former President of Ireland, stateswoman and campaigner Mary Robinson has received the Benjamin Franklin House Medal for Leadership in a virtual ceremony on Wednesday 7 July. The award recognises extraordinary individuals following in Franklin’s footsteps who exemplify a commitment to justice, cross-cultural understanding, tolerance and humanity.

Robinson was the first woman President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. Her many roles now include Adjunct Professor for Climate Justice in Trinity College Dublin and Chair of The Elders.

Robinson received the award in recognition of her many achievements, over several decades, particularly on gender equality, human rights and climate change.

Watch the full ceremony below:

Previously the Award has been given to:

  • Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York and Founder of Bloomberg LP (2014).
  • John Kerry, then Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions (2016).

Interview: Professor Sarah B Pomeroy

The Lady Joan Reid Children’s Author in Residence, Professor Sarah B. Pomeroy recently sat down with our Founding Director, Márcia Balisciano, via the internet, to discuss her upcoming book Benjamin Franklin, Swimmer.

Professor Pomeroy, a distinguished Professor emeritus of Classics and History at the City University of New York, is an accomplished author of numerous books, articles, and reviews on the topic of Women in Antiquity, including the classic Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. She has won many awards, including the Ford Foundation Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, and a Mellon Foundation Fellowship. Her pioneering work has been instrumental in our understanding of women in history.

In this short conversation, Professor Pomeroy spoke extensively about her research into Benjamin Franklin’s love of swimming and how he swam extensively in the Thames and the Seine during his time in London and Paris respectively. Professor Pomeroy also spoke on some of the challenges she faced as a woman early in her career and how she was able to overcome these hurdles and later publishing her thought-provoking and pioneering work on the leading role women played in the ancient world.

Transcript below: 

MB: It is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Pomeroy, the Lady Joan Reid Children’s Author in residence to speak with us today. Sarah is also the distinguished Professor emeritus of Classics and History at the City University of New York. Welcome Sarah.

SP: Thank you Marcia, nice to be with you.

MB: Well I wanted to start by asking you what drew you to a career as a historian.

SP: The Greek Herodotus, father of history, called his work historia, which means research. I’ve always been interested in doing research and finding out what was not known before and discovering the relationships between facts that are known. For example, I deduced that on his second visit to London, Benjamin Franklin probably chose to live in, what is now known as Franklin House, because it is a short walk to the Thames where he liked to swim. I have a lot to tell you about that. During his first visit to London, Franklin also swam in the Thames. The river was cleaner in the 18th Century, than it was later, but it was wider and shallower, before the embankments were built. The Thames are tidal, and currents could be treacherous, all kinds of ships plied the waters. Their captains would not have thought that they needed to be on the lookout for swimmers. Franklin was a powerful swimmer, doubtless he studied the river, and chose auspicious conditions for his recreational swims and aquatic performances. He writes about one swimming adventure that occurred at a critical point in his life. Emphasising his own bravery and bravado, he glosses over the fact that friends came along and shielded him from the potential danger posed by passing ships. In London, Franklin was not only a long distance and exhibition swimmer, but he also became a successful swimming instructor. In May or June 1726, he easily taught John Wyget a friend who worked with him as a printer and Wyget’s friend how to swim in only two lessons. The swimmers attracted an audience. Franklin responded to their interest by preforming feats of swimming requiring strength, endurance, and grace. As usual he showed off, he even invented some new ways of preforming in the water. He wrote in his autobiography that on this excursion, “I stripped and leapt into the river and swam from near Chelsea to near Blackfriars preforming on the way, many feats of activity, both upon and under water, that surprised and please those to whom they were novelties. I had from a child, ever delighted with this exercise, aiming at the graceful and easy, as well as the useful. All these, I took as occasion of exhibiting to the company and was much flattered by their admiration.” In 1724, Franklin turned down a tempting offer by Sir William Wyndham to open the first American swim school in England. Franklin’s enthusiasm for swimming was doubtless an important part of his success in teaching the sport. He realized he could make a good deal of money by teaching swimming to British aristocrats, but he missed his home and family. Use of Franklin’s skill and success in teaching swimming had spread. Swimming thus became the means by which he effortlessly came in contact with the upper echelons of London society at an early age.

MB: I’m interested to know as a pioneer in the field of Greek and Roman women’s history. How did you begin to be interested in Benjamin Franklin?

SP: I became a member of the American Philosophical Society  in 2014. I was elected because of my paradigm changing scholarly work in ancient history. The American Philosophical Society is the oldest learned society in the United States. It was created by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. In order to promote, in Franklin’s words – useful knowledge. We meet twice a year in Franklin’s corner of Philadelphia. At our meetings, we always see his benevolent portrait behind the speakers. I learned that Franklin love to swim. I am a swimmer too. I live in Sag Harbour on Long Island, close to ocean and bay beaches, and I have a heated pool. I swim outdoors every day from April through November. I also like to read about swimming, and I thought it would be fun to find out more about Franklin’s swimming.

MB: Well, I know that your book is about to be published by the American Philosophical Society – Benjamin Franklin, Swimmer. It definitely seems like a unique topic. But tell us more about why this subject and how you chose such a unique view of Franklin to highlight.

SP: Benjamin Franklin’s earliest memories, and first inventions are connected to swimming. In his autobiography, after a traditional opening, reviewing his family’s history, his formal education, and his brief apprenticeship as a candle maker, he wrote a long paragraph about his interest in the sea, in boats, and in swimming. Franklin’s useful inventions were swimming paddles, and a method of kite surfing. He boasted of them later in life. Yet this aspect of Franklin’s biography has never been studied. I’d like to read to you what Franklin wrote in his autobiography about his early experiments in the water when he was growing up in Boston. Many years after the fact, Franklin proudly recalled, “when I was a boy, I made two oval pallets each about 10 inches long and six inches broad, with a hole for the thumb. In order to retain it fast in the palm of my hand. They much resembled a painter’s palette, in swimming, I push the edges of these forward and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back, I remember I swam faster by means of these palettes, but they fatigue my wrists. I also fitted to the soles of my feet, a kind of sandals, but I was not satisfied with them. Because I observed that the stroke is partly given by the inside of the feet and the ankles, and not entirely with the soles of the feet.” Franklin’s problem with his swim fins was due to the fact that he swam doing the frog kick. Nowadays we were swim fins doing the flutter kick, and they work very well. Franklin also recalled, “when I was a boy, I amused myself one day with flying the paper kite and approaching the bank of upon which was near a mile broad. I tied the string to a stake and the kite ascended to a very considerable height above the pond while I was swimming in a little time, being desirous of amusing myself with my kite, and enjoying at the same time, the pleasure of swimming, I returned, and loosing from the stake, the strain but the little stick which was fast into it, went again into the water, where I found that, lying on my back, and holding the stick in my hands, I was drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner. Having then engaged another boy, to carry my clothes around the pond, to a place which I pointed out to him on the other side, I began to cross the pond with my kite, which carried me quite over, without the least fatigue, and with the greatest pleasure imaginable. I was only obliged occasionally to halt a little in my course, and resist its progress, when it appeared that by following too quick, I lower the kite too much, by doing which I occasionally made it rise again.”

MB: Those are amazing quotes. Where did you find all this great information about Franklin and swimming?

SP: Franklin discusses swimming and his letters and, in his autobiography, friends and family also comment on his swimming. Though the evidence is sparse, varied references to swimming occur throughout Franklin’s lifetime and in many contexts. He praises swimming, because it promotes health, hygiene, and safety, especially when people find themselves suddenly in the water. Therefore, knowing how to swim was essential, not only for a professional sailor, but also for anyone who travelled by boat. In those days travelled by boat was common. In his autobiography, Franklin mentions taking boats and ferries in his journeys. He records the perils and pleasures of these voyages in detail. Drownings were such a common occurrence that only multiple disasters, destroying entire families or boatloads, attracted much attention. The water played a decisive role in Franklin’s life. Fearing ocean travel, Franklin’s wife Deborah refused to join him in Europe, and they spent most of their married life apart.

MB: I know that in your new book, you’re going to be highlighting some excerpts about swimming from the Journal of Franklin’s teenage grandson, Benny. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?

SP: Oh, yes. When Franklin’s grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache was in his care in France, he allowed him to swim across the Seine, an activity that was fraught with danger from strong winds and passing ships. Benny’s journal constitutes another important primary source for my book. The escapades of this engaging literate teenager, in France with a benevolent indulgence chaperone have never before been published. Benny was educated in Geneva and wrote his journal in French. In the 20th century, one of his descendants translated the journal into English. There is no doubt that the Journal of Ben Franklin’s grandson will be of great interest both to sophisticated younger readers and to scholars and admirers of Ben Franklin. Like his grandfather, Benny built kites. I want to read a particularly lively excerpt to you about the adventures of Benny and his friend Alexander, as it appears in my forthcoming book, “with Alexander, I have constructed a kite five feet in height. We tried to fly it, but the wind was too strong for the string and it broke, as it was upon the riverbank, and it fell upon the other side. I undressed in haste and swam across the river. But when I reached the other side, I saw some strangers who had seized it, and had already carried it very far. For they were near the village of Boucharate some distance away. They had not had the sense to take the string out of the water, so that I took it and swam with it to the other side. The misfortune made us sad, but it did not destroy all our courage. So we decided to buy another string and make a kite of seven feet.”

MB: I wanted to ask you how you think history is best communicated?

SP: In plain English, so not only scholars, like all intelligent readers can understand it. In writing a book about Benjamin Franklin, I felt it appropriate to adhere to the advice he gives in his treatise on literary style. “I have thought in general, that whoever would write so as not to displease good judges should have particular regard to these three things. That his performance be smooth, clear and short.” Visual evidence is also very important. I include in my book, paintings and photos of places where Franklin swam, places that no longer look as they did in the 18th century. For example, the marshes in Boston, where Franklin and his friend swam as boys have been drained. They now constitute Fenway Park, a name that recalls their original state. In my book I also show artistic diagrams that were drawn in early manuals to illustrate various positions a swimmer could use. Including how to swim if an enemy had tied up your arms and legs and tossed you into the water. I’m happy to acknowledge the enthusiastic help I received from librarians in many libraries, including those founded by Franklin, at the library company in the Philadelphia, and at the American Philosophical Society.

MB: What’s your purpose in writing about history and you’ve dedicated your career to this important area of knowledge. But why history?

SP: In the case of my forthcoming book, it is to try to trace the evolution and importance of swimming, both in the Western world and in Franklin’s life in particular, I will briefly review some of the ways in which both histories intersect. Franklin was in good health due to exercise and was proud of his physique which can be attributed in part to swimming. Being new did not embarrass him at all. And he continued to swim even when he was 80 years old. Swimming in cold water was fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries. But as usual, Franklin was an independent thinker. In his 50s, he preferred to take air baths as he calls them, naked in front of the window at his lodge on Craven street in London. Incidentally, the fact that swimming is best done in the nude, discourage women from learning how to swim. Latex had not been invented. The bathing attire of early modern women in the western world consisted of a heavy woollen dress and woollen stockings. When waterlogged, this costume would have dragged a woman down. Although Franklin had rejected the idea of starting a swimming school in England when he returned to North America, he became a valuable evangelist for swimming instruction. This time, he did not consider his financial advantages, but rather the public good. He advised parents to teach their children how to swim so that they would be safe and not afraid of the water. When he became an influential figure in Philadelphia, he advocated including swimming in the basic educational curriculum. In 1968, the International swimming Hall of Fame honoured Franklin with membership. The citation mentioned his various inventions, which made swimming more efficient, and his own feats as a swimmer. But most of all his success in promoting swimming as an essential part of education. Benjamin Franklin’s advice about water safety, lifeboat rescue, sea anchors, escaped from shipwrecks, and on the advisability of teaching people to swim for the sake of safety, and avoiding fear of the water is still relevant. To sum up, swimming has always been in Franklin’s words, useful knowledge.

MB: Indeed, well, the audience for this book is young adults, but you’re used to writing for a very sophisticated audience in higher education. So how did you get interested in writing for young people?

SP: All my scholarly books when I was writing about ancient history, they were all of course for adults. Then, I became interested in Maria Sibylla Merian, who was a scientist and artist who went to Suriname in the 18th century and painted watercolours of the animal life, especially insects that she found there, and her paintings became scientific documents. Linnaeus used them as specimens. Linnaeus who never went to the new world. So, he used the Merian’s paintings of insects as actual specimens for his taxonomy. Well, I was writing that book for my grandchildren. I have seven grandchildren. And my daughter was a curator at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. And her colleague, Elizabeth Nicholson, who moved to the Getty became interested in asked me if I would write one of the two books that for children that the Getty publishes each year. And so that became my first book for the younger readers. And it turned out that when I had distributed this book to friends for their grandchildren, some of them kept the book. They like the book for themselves. There’s a very fine line between young adults and adults. I find my grandchildren. My youngest one is 13 is reading the Chernow book on Hamilton at 700 pages. So, inspect some and sometimes you read Philip Putnam. A sophisticated younger reader can certainly read the same kind of book as, as an adult, I find. You know what, Márcia, I wanted to ask you have a question. I was thinking about a Franklin, sitting in front of the parlour windows at Franklin house naked and taking those air baths. The windows that you have now the same windows as you, as must have been the ones that Franklin sat behind or they have they’ve been replaced?

MB: We’re not really quite sure, but they would have been a sash type window. And the glass that we have is old, but we don’t know that it goes back all the way to the 18th century. But regardless, the window height has not been changed. So it would have been quite a sight if you were across narrow Craven Street, having your breakfast and happening to look out of your window and seeing you know, as though a person who liked exercise somewhat portly, if the portraits are to be believed, sitting there without his clothes on taking his air bath because as you pointed out, he thought that was quite helpful to open up the window and let that air in. And actually, in the time in which we’re living through right now with the coronavirus, you can see correlation, in terms of the need for fresh air and the instances of disease dissipates when there is a fresh air source. And in fact, Franklin we think had very prescient ideas about the common cold because he was writing about, if you go into a closed carriage for a drive on a weekend, you might end up catching ill so he had some very progressive ideas, but it might have been a little bit too progressive for the neighbours.

SP: Remember when he had to share a bed with John Adams and in Paris and Adams wanted the window shut and Franklin wanted the windows open and he talked John Adams to sleep with his theories about opening the windows. Also, Franklin had skin diseases and that certainly is a good idea to take your clothes off and feel better if you have skin problems, without any clothes, rubbing your skin. So, he took care of that too, by sitting naked in front of the window.

MB: I love that story about John Adams, you could just see how that played out. And I’m mindful also that John Adams was very critical of Benjamin Franklin for sleeping in when he was the first representative of the fledgling American government trying to convince the French to support the cause of revolution because maybe at his heart, John Adams was in Massachusetts Puritan who had a strong Protestant work ethic and didn’t quite take to Franklin rising late. But on the other side, I think Adams didn’t realize how important Franklin’s approach to diplomacy was in terms of cultivating the relationships with the French court which ultimately led to the contributions from the French that supported the cause of revolution.

SP: I think the French must have gotten up even later than Franklin because Franklin used to swim in the Seine. And with his nude swimming, I think he probably got up before there was a crowd about. Considering how old he was. Though he was never ashamed of his body. So, he swam in the Seine and then he let his grandson swim in the Seine. I don’t know if you’d let your son swim across the Seine.

MB: No, haha, I wouldn’t. But you’ll be pleased to know I am giving them swimming lessons. I hope they turn out to be good and strong swimmers. So, I wanted to ask you what draw you to history personally as a young person because you went on to have such a distinguished career as a historian? Why that subject and not something else?

SP: Some of it was not planned. When I was in college and graduate school, I studied Greek and Latin. But I did my dissertation in papyrology. That is, I read ancient documents that were written in Egypt at the time of Roman domination and piecing them together. First there was philology, that is love of words, because I found three new words that had never been seen before in a Greek document. And they went into this huge Greek dictionary that everybody uses, but it was also a question of history. What was this document about it was a microcosm It was a lease of an olive grove and interestingly enough, the person who, the lessor was a woman, and I never knew that women could sign legal documents in the Roman period in Egypt, 2000 years ago. But when I started out, I wasn’t even interested in the fact that this was a woman I became interested in specifically in women’s history a little bit later, when I actually was a victim of laws at the City University of New York, which made it very difficult for me to advance in my career. They actually had a law saying that if you were that if the woman or if a student or a faculty member was pregnant, she had to not not teach or not be a student the following semester, you couldn’t you couldn’t be pregnant, visibly pregnant and be teaching. Well they’ve done away with these laws, but I had three children. Imagine that this the stop and go wasn’t anything I wanted but that was the law.

MB: Your book that your first book that you published in 1975, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. How was that received? You were so brave and publishing a book with that title and revealing this, hitherto unknown history of women at that period?

SP: All my books are still in print and, and Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. is still used as a textbook and people read it for as a trade book. So, I’m very proud of that. As soon as it was published. It was reviewed in all the major publications like TLS, and the New York Times and The New York Review of Books, and it got astoundingly wonderful reviews. And it started a whole new field of study, more people became interested in the history of ancient women. I mean, how many subjects in the ancient world have not been worked over by many people many times? How many times can you read another book about Plato’s Republic or Homer’s Odyssey. But here’s women’s history in 1975. Nobody had ever looked at it.

MB: Especially for women and women’s scholars, it’s important to have mentors. I mean, you certainly have been a role model for the women scholars who have come after you, not only in your field but more generally. But I wondered, did you have a mentor in your career?

SP: No, I didn’t. when I was at Columbia University, they didn’t even have a woman on the faculty in classics. Oh, yes. There was one woman in archaeology with whom I studied. But I became a mentor to other women. I’m still in touch with them, of course now, virtually.

MB: And so, where did you get your inspiration and your fearlessness really to tread a path that hadn’t been trodden before?

SP: Well, that’s something I do. I am kind of brash, a little bit, maybe like, Franklin, you know, think out of the box. Sometimes I send my ideas to people and they don’t like them because I make suggestions that so many people are, holed up in their apartments in New York City so I say you know, go to your country house take a limousine. What are you saving your money for? Doesn’t matter. Carey limousine has Plexiglas divider between the driver and the passenger. You know, I just give people ideas, take it or leave.

MB: Well, your ideas certainly have been very good because I just want to point out to our listeners that you have held a Ford Foundation fellowship. You received City University President’s Award in scholarship. You have been Guggenheim fellow receive grants from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others. Not to mention us, as you said that the Franklin founded American Philosophical Society elected us as a member in the last so many years and of course, the APS is publishing the book that we are so excited about Benjamin Franklin swimmer. So maybe just one last question, Sarah, about changes in scholarship. You know, again, thinking about how the time that we’re living through at the moment with this Coronavirus and students are needing to work remotely. It’s not clear as we record this interview in the summer of 2020, how many young people will be able to return to their campuses? How do you see changes in scholarship going forward? Will we always have a kind of core focus on research and publishing and how you see the future?

SP: Well, I think we still have that same method, perhaps new methods will evolve. My grandson is getting a PhD in history at Harvard. And he needs to consult archives in California. And he’s been, of course, he’s based in Cambridge and he can’t fly there, and the archives are closed. And I mean, these archives are not online. So perhaps the people who’ve been studying different kinds of subjects and subjects that are more available online, but then they won’t be able to consult primary sources as historians would like to do. I’m just fortunate that many Benny Bache’s journal was online. And I didn’t have to go to Philadelphia all the time to consult it. By the way, Benny Bache died in an epidemic, yellow fever. There was a lot of mosquito borne plagues in Philadelphia in the colonial period. Benny Bache stayed in Philadelphia though his family went out to their country estate. And he kept publishing his newspaper, and he died in the plague in one of those plagues.

MB: Tragic, I guess in every family, and Franklin certainly had his fair share of tragedy with the death of his second born son, Francis.

SP: From was smallpox that was another plague.

MB: And him feeling that he was not as bold as maybe he should have been in understanding the potential benefits of inoculation. Well, it’s probably a fitting note to end on because we’ll see what kind of inoculations, we may get in the days ahead, Sarah, I can’t thank you enough. Professor Sarah Pomeroy Lady Joan Reid, children’s author in residence of Benjamin Franklin, the author of the soon to be published by the American Philosophical Society, Benjamin Franklin, Swimmer and before I let you have the last word, Sarah, let me just say that your title at Benjamin Franklin house recognizes Lady Joan Reid who was one of the UK foremost scholars on Benjamin Franklin, a long time governor and house historian. And we revere her, still and recognize her scholarship in your title. But thank you again, Sarah.

SP: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Deep sadness at the loss of Michelle Smith, President of the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation


Michelle Smith, Sir David Frost, Clarice Smith, and Robert H Smith at The Benjamin Franklin House Gala held at the Newseum in Washington, DC.

All of us at Benjamin Franklin House are deeply saddened by the untimely death of Michelle Smith, President of the Robert H. Smith Foundation.

Michelle greatly strengthened Benjamin Franklin House over many years through her strategic advice and support.  She helped us realise offerings that have enriched people’s understanding of Franklin’s life and times including our Virtual Georgian Interior, expansion of our Sister Schools programme, and the creation of Franklin’s Young Inventors science initiative.  Michelle understood the power of history to enlighten our past and enrich our future.

She carried on the legacy of her father, the late Robert H. Smith, for whom our Scholarship Centre is named.  In her honour and that of her father, we are renaming our annual lecture on America and democracy, the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation Lecture in American Democracy, which will take place next on 13 October 2020 in conjunction with the London School of Economics.

Michelle, with a distinguished background in design and property development, was a leader in philanthropy and civic engagement.  Her passions included heritage, the arts, and the world of ideas.  She served on The Aspen Institute Board of Trustees, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Leadership Council, Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies Board of Directors, Kennedy Center International Committee, Mayo Clinic Leadership Council, National Gallery of Art Trustees Council, University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board of Trustees, Hebrew University Board of Governors, Board of Trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation that owns and operates Monticello, New-York Historical Society Board of Trustees, the Whitney Museum of Art National Committee, The Better Angels Society Board of Directors, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum Board of Commissioners.

We will greatly miss but always remember Michelle’s intelligence and grace, insight, and generosity.