As our country prepares to celebrate another birthday this month, this week’s pick is an object steeped in American history and achievement, spotlighting a few famous Philadelphians and featuring two Philadelphia landmarks. My pick is lot 401 from our October 2015 Americana sale, an embossed copper bust of Benjamin Franklin made by Franklin Peale in 1840.
The story of the artist, Franklin Peale, is an impressive tale. He was born into good fortune as the son of famed Philadelphian painter, scientist, inventor and naturalist, Charles Wilson Peale. His father was known for founding the first “natural history” museum in an era where Americans were becoming increasingly more interested in the sciences and fostering intellectual exploration. The Philadelphia Museum, Peale said, served “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue” in the new American republic. Remaining open to the public for nearly fifty years, the Peale family’s museum was home to hundreds of portraits, thousands of natural history specimens, archaeological objects, life-size wax figures, fossils, and curiosities.
Franklin Peale was quite literally born into the family business; his mother gave birth to him in the family quarters of the museum. Peale’s museum was once housed in the headquarters of the American Philosophical Society, an organization founded in 1743 by none other than Benjamin Franklin himself. It is said that the young Peale was given his name at four months old by members of the Society as he sat upon a chair once owned by his namesake.
As an adult, Franklin Peale cultivated an interest in mechanical engineering, becoming a founding member of the Franklin Institute and later working for the Philadelphia Mint where he earned the title of Chief Coiner. Peale developed many new technologies – some successful and some failures – to assist in the coining process. During this time, he nourished his artistic proclivities and created medallions with the help of machinery housed at the Mint. One such item produced by Peale in his offices at the Philadelphia Mint is our pick of the week, a copper bust cast in 1840 to celebrate his namesake, America’s most famous Franklin.
This piece of 19th century American material culture embodies the products of American ingenuity thanks to Franklin Peale’s coining inventions and it honors the past achievements of one of America’s greatest intellectuals, Benjamin Franklin. In the mid 19th century, less than a century after the country’s founding, Americans were proud to reflect on the progress their country had made. It is a pleasure that my job at Pook & Pook allows me to celebrate American culture every day while I learn from these objects and uncover fascinating stories of our ancestors. Happy birthday 242nd birthday, America!
By: Kaitlyn Julian