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Sections: 1750 to 1800 | 1800 to 1850 | 1850 to 1900 | 1900 to 1950 | 1950 to 2000

Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751)

In 1751, Peter Collinson, president of the Royal Society, arranged for the publication of a series of letters from Benjamin Franklin, written between 1747 and 1750, describing his experiments with electricity. Franklin demonstrated his new theory of the general electrical “action” of positive and negative charges, suggested the electrical nature of lightning, and proposed a grounded rod as a protection against lightning. Through the publication of these experiments, Franklin became the first American to gain an international reputation for his scientific work. In 1753 he received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for his contributions to the knowledge of electricity and lightning.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America. London: E. Cave, 1751. Benjamin Franklin Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

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Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard Improved (1732) and The Way to Wealth (1785)

As a writer, Benjamin Franklin was best known for the wit and wisdom he shared with the readers of his popular almanac, Poor Richard, under the pseudonym “Richard Saunders.” In 1758, for his twenty-fifth almanac, Franklin created a clever preface that repeated a number of his maxims from earlier almanacs, framed as an event in which Father Abraham advises a crowd attending a country auction that those seeking prosperity and virtue should diligently practice frugality, honesty, and industry. Reprinted as Father Abraham’s Speech and The Way to Wealth, this piece has been translated into many languages and is the most extensively reprinted of all of Franklin’s writings.

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  • Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Poor Richard Improved: An Almanack for the Year of Christ 1758. Philadelphia: B. Franklin, 1757. American Almanac Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

  • Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). The Way to Wealth, and a Plan by Which Every Man May Pay His Taxes. Philadelphia: Daniel Humphreys, 1785. Printed Ephemera Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (103.00.00)

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Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

Published anonymously in Philadelphia in January 1776, Common Sense appeared at a time when both separation from Great Britain and reconciliation were being considered. Through simple rational arguments, Thomas Paine focused blame for colonial America’s troubles on the British king and pointed out the advantages of independence. With over half a million copies in twenty-five editions appearing throughout the colonies within the first year, this popular pamphlet helped to turn the tide of sentiment toward revolution.

Thomas Paine (1737–1809). Common Sense. Philadelphia: R. Bell, 1776. American Imprint Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)

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Noah Webster, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783)

Believing that a distinctive American language was essential to creating cultural independence for the new nation, Noah Webster sought to standardize rules for spelling and pronunciation. His Grammatical Institute became the popular “blue-backed speller,” used to teach a century of American children how to spell and pronounce words. Book royalties provided Webster with the economic independence to develop his other major contribution, the first American dictionary.

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The Federalist (1787)

Now considered to be the most significant American contribution to political thought, The Federalist essays supporting the ratification of the new Constitution first appeared in New York newspapers under the pseudonym “Publius.” Although it was widely known that the eighty-five essays were the work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the initial curious speculation about authorship of specific essays gradually developed into heated controversy. Hamilton left an authorship list with his lawyer before his fatal duel. In his copy, Madison identified the author of each essay with their initials. Thomas Jefferson penned a similar authorship list in his copy. None of these attributions exactly match, and the authorship of several essays is still being debated by scholars.

The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution. vol. 1. New York: J. and A. McLean, 1788. Thomas Jefferson Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

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A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible (1788)

Hieroglyphic Bibles were popular in the late eighteenth century as an effective and entertaining way to teach children biblical passages. Isaiah Thomas, the printer of this 1788 edition, is widely acclaimed as America’s first enlightened printer of children’s books and is often compared to John Newbery of London, England, with whom he shared the motto “Instruction with delight.”

A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible, or, Select Passages in the Old and New Testaments. . . . Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas, 1788. American Imprint Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

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Christopher Colles, A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America (1789)

Irish-born engineer and surveyor Christopher Colles produced what is considered the first road map or guide book of the U.S. It uses a format familiar to modern travelers with each plate consisting of two to three strip maps arranged side by side, covering approximately twelve miles. Colles began this work in 1789 but ended the project in 1792 because relatively few people purchased subscriptions for the books. But in that time, he compiled an atlas covering approximately 1,000 miles from Albany, New York, to Williamsburg, Virginia. The book is invaluable for understanding the developing road network in the newly formed United States.

Christopher Colles (1738–1816). “From Annapolis to Alexandria.” A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America. New York: Colles, 1789. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (008.00.00)

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Benjamin Franklin, The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D. (1793)

Benjamin Franklin was sixty-five when he wrote the first part of his autobiography, which focused on his early life to 1730. During the 1780s he added three briefer parts that advanced his story to his fiftieth year (1756) and revised the first part. In the summer of 1790, shortly after his death, additional extracts of Franklin’s memoirs appeared in two Philadelphia magazines. The first book-length edition was published in Paris in 1791. The first English edition, a retranslation of this French edition, was published in London in 1793. A masterpiece of wit and style, Franklin’s autobiography has been reprinted innumerable times and still is considered one of the most influential memoirs in American literature.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D. Late Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States of America to France, &c. London: J. Parsons, 1793. Benjamin Franklin Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)

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Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (1796)

This cornerstone in American cookery is the first cookbook of American authorship to be printed in the United States. Numerous recipes adapting traditional dishes by substituting native American ingredients, such as corn, squash, and pumpkin, are printed here for the first time. Simmons’s “Pompkin Pudding,” baked in a crust, is the basis for the classic American pumpkin pie. Recipes for cake-like gingerbread are the first known to recommend the use of pearl ash, the forerunner of baking powder.

Amelia Simmons [n.d.]. American Cookery, or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables . . . and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted to This Country, and All Grades of Life. Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796. American Imprint Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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Sections: 1750 to 1800 | 1800 to 1850 | 1850 to 1900 | 1900 to 1950 | 1950 to 2000