It’s one thing to read about Benjamin Franklin in a history book. It’s another to see him in a “most unusual” exchange.
“I don’t know,” said the boy, flummoxed by a simple inquiry about his name.
The boy spoke English well enough, just not this particular brand of English. The words were more or less familiar, but the phrasing was as odd as the clothes of the inquisitor.
“What is thy name, master?”
The boy stared ahead, uncomfortable in front of the small crowd gathered around the bespectacled figure of Franklin, the printer’s apprentice, whose breathtaking list of inventions practically includes America itself.
“Well it’s on your shirt,” said Franklin re-enactor Phil Soinski. “Is it Master Herbalife? A most unusual custom, writing your name on the front of your shirt to remember it.”
It’s that interactive, humor-filled approach to history that makes Franklin’s “Electric” Birthday show at the International Printing Museum in Carson so memorable, not only for the children in the audience, but the adults who may have forgotten Franklin’s contributions to the world of science, civics and just about every other aspect of colonial life.
“It was really entertaining and not boring at all,” said fourth-grader Mia Felt who came to the show with her fellow Girl Scouts.
Soinski, who masterfully portrays Franklin, began the hour-long presentation with the inventor’s birth and childhood.
“I was one of 17 children. My father was very proud. My mother was exhausted,” he told the audience.
Even though he learned to read at the age of 3 and showed great intellectual promise, Franklin’s father could not afford to send him to Harvard where tuition was $400 a year. So he left school at the age of 10 and began an apprenticeship at his brother’s printing shop. Franklin went on to set up his own printing shops, first in Philadelphia and then across the colonies, retiring a wealthy man at the age of 42.
“I became one of America’s first millionaires and dedicated my life to science and making people’s lives a little bit better,” he said.
Even though Franklin was known for his inventions and drafting the Declaration of Independence, he wanted to be remembered first and foremost as a printer, said Mark Barbour, executive director and curator of the museum in Carson.
“We know this by reading his will. It reads ‘I Benjamin Franklin, printer,’” Barbour said.
Even though he wanted to be remembered as a printer, Soinski uses wit and humor to highlight the achievements Franklin was known for, inventions like bifocals, the Franklin stove, the glass armonica, the school desk, a chair that folds into a ladder and the “unsteady chair,” more commonly known as a rocking chair. He demonstrated Franklin’s electro-static generator by having a physician and attorney from the audience hold glass tubes that lit up after a young boy turned a crank, generating electricity.
“I never asked for a patent for my inventions. I did it for the betterment of mankind,” Soinski said, waving his white, lace-trimmed handkerchief. “Who knows was a patent is?”
Soinski, who has been the museum’s resident Franklin for 12 years, says he was fascinated by the “depth of the man.”
“He was a real radical, questioning authority, not only the king, but religion and science,” Soinski said. “He was always looking for something new and interesting.”
Like Franklin, Soinski tries to bring something new and interesting to every show. He’s had to research every aspect of Franklin’s life for the question and answer session at the end of the show. Inquiries run the gamut from wanting to know what type of undergarments the man wore to whether he invented swim fins.
Before leaving the stage, Franklin always leaves the kids with words of encouragement:
“Read, read, read,” he told his audience. “And always seek the possibility of why, why, why.”
Those words seem to resonate with the 20,000 students who see the show every year and “swallow the pill of education without thinking about it,” said curator Barbour.
“I learned all about his inventions, but in a fun way,” said 10-year-old Girl Scout Ella Handelman. “He’s in front of you recreating what it was like to live long ago.”
In addition to the show, the audience also had access to the letter presses and printing machines in the museum. Guide Peter Small did an excellent job of explaining the history of the printing press, down to melting metal for the letter molds.
“I’ve never seen melted metal before,” said Girl Scout Cecilia Mansilla, 10. “I liked that it was dry in 30 seconds.”
Visitors can rotate through the various printing stations to design their own postcards and paper prints. Many of those printing machines are so rare they’ve even been used in Hollywood movies like “The Master” and “Inception.”
“You get to roll paint over the print and see the results right away,” said Girl Scout Micah Worner, who made several cards and postcards during her visit.
Even though they grew up in the digital age, the immediate results of the printing process intrigued the children who visited the museum. And a real life Benjamin Franklin offered them a slice of colonial life.