Style Icon: Benjamin Franklin, America's First Celebrity

Style Icon: Benjamin Franklin, America's First Celebrity

Long before John Lennon made round eyeglass frames modern, Benjamin Franklin wore them and improved them into bifocals. While in Paris, Franklin cannily kept to his natural locks instead of wearing powdered wigs and he still won over the French. He edited the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, and wrote the line "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Often called "The First American," Benjamin Franklin is also an American Style Icon.

Franklin is so ubiquitous in American culture that it's impossible to imagine the country without him — even without the part he played in the Revolution. His independence, curiosity, and self-made success have become hallmarks of the American spirit. He was America's first international celebrity, to the extent that John Adams complained, "His reputation is greater than that of Newton, Frederick the Great or Voltaire, his character more revered than all of them. There's scarcely a coachman or a footman or scullery maid who does not consider him a friend of all mankind."

Poster for the 2008 HBO Miniseries John Adams.

His awe-inspiring resourcefullness and ingenuity led him to a laundry list of careers, including writer and printer, scientist, diplomat, and musician. And his success was self-made. One of 17 children, he moved from apprenticing for his brother (and quitting) to making The Pennsylvania Gazette the most popular newspaper in the colonies. It was in the Gazette that Franklin drew and published the famous "Join or Die" political cartoon, which later became a potent symbol for freedom during the American Revolution. At 42, he retired from printing to focus on science, but public service eventually consumed most of his time. The idea that colonists to the new world could build a new life for themselves obviously did not begin with Franklin, but his outsize success reads almost as folk tale for the generations of industrious Americans who followed him.

Glass armonica, attributed to Charles James 1761-1762

A noted inventor, Franklin created everything from the lightening rod to the first subscription library. In 1741, aggravated by the smoke created by traditional stoves, he invented the Franklin stove to produce more heat with less smoke. After enjoying a concert of Handel's water music on wine glasses, he invented the armonica, which became popular enough that Beethoven and Mozart composed music for it. While not all of his inventions were successful, his DIY tendencies and can-do attitude became touchstones for American ingenuity and the airplanes, Model T's, ipods, and Snuggies that have followed.

A version of Poor Richard's Almanack published by Peter Pauper Press. The cover is adorned with woodcut art.

Of course, another trademark of American style is self-improvement — from bestselling inspirational books to Oprah's multimedia powerhouse, we loved being inspired to live a better life. Once again, while Franklin wasn't the first colonist to seek self-improvement, he was great at motivating other people to try. Most Americans are familiar with at least one aphorism from Poor Richard's Almanack, from "Fish and Visitors stink after three days" to "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." In his autobiography, Franklin recounts the 13 virtues he tries to live by, including temperance, justice, and sincerity. He was so dedicated to living according to these virtues that he made charts to keep daily track of his progress. Even today, motivational posters, blog series, and speakers quote from his writings.

Franklin in Paris, where he purposefully dressed in "American" style rather than French.

"Lifestyle" has become a huge buzzword over the past few years. There are magazines and blogs dedicated to the well-lived life, and entire tv shows dedicated to improving homes, bodies, and lives. It's not enough to have good taste — the stylish life should also include volunteering, exercise, favorite hobbies, and fulfillment. Even here at Apartment Therapy, our goal isn't just to help you create a gorgeous living space, but to inspire you to do it yourself and to create a space that makes you happy. Benjamin Franklin's curiosity, innovations, public service, sartorial opinions, and confidence have made him a Style Icon for just this sort of life &mdash and one who has endured for America's entire history thus far.

Resources and More Information:
PBS: Benjamin Franklin, World of Influence
The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary
NPR: Recalling the Life of Benjamin Franklin, Scientist
Time Magazine: The Amazing Adventures of Ben Franklin.

Other American Style Icons:
Mark Twain
Ernest Hemingway
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Elizabeth Taylor

Image Credits: 1. Michael J. Deas Benjamin Franklin oil on panel for Time Magazine 2. Drawing by Benjamin Franklin via Antique Spectacles. 3. Peter Harholdt, 2004 via the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary. 4. Poor Richard's Almanack by Peter Pauper Press. 5. Franklin''s reception at the court of France, 1778. , Anton Hohenstein, Public Domain 6. William Hackwood, Josiah Wedgwood Portrait Medallion, photo courtesy of The Franklin Group. 7. HBO John Adams poster via Kid Richmond. 8. Heavy Duty Press 9. Yards Brewing. 10. Ben Franklin in Paris 1964 Cast Album cover via Amazon.

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