Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Benjamin Franklin: Printed Corrections and Erasable Writing1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Benjamin Franklin: Printed Corrections and Erasable Writing1

Article excerpt

THE MOST FAMOUS of Franklin's ethical inventions didn't work: namely, his table of virtues, of which he drew the only two diagrams in his autobiography (fig. 1). And if the ethical project failed, so at first did the technology that Franklin invented for carrying it out: a "little Book" in which to record his lapses. He tells us in great detail how he made this book:

I allotted a Page for each of the Virtues. I rul'd each Page with red Ink, so as to have seven Columns, one for each Day of the Week, marking each Column with a Letter for the Day. I cross'd these Columns with thirteen red Lines, marking the Beginning of each Line with the first Letter of one of the Virtues, on which Line and in its proper Column I might mark by a little black Spot every Fault I found upon Examination, to have been committed respecting that Virtue upon that Day. (7O)2

But before Franklin could mark up a new week's faults, he first had to erase the faults that he had noted down the previous week, and the constant erasures destroyed the notebooks that he had made. Although he does not tell us what he was writing with, it must have been a blacklead pencil, because at least graphite was simpler to erase than ink.

That does not mean that it was simple. A version of the modern erasers that we now use was first proposed in the 1752 Proceedings of the French Academy. In 1770, Joseph Priestley named the gum from which erasers were made "rubber," precisely because it was used to rub out writing. Erasers are still called "rubbers" in England, to the amusement of my American students. No such erasers existed when Franklin was using his tables in the 174Os. The commonest method of erasing graphite at that time was by rubbing bread back and forth over the paper, a method still in widespread use in the twentieth century.

Such a method was advocated in 1661 in Every Man's Companion, which, according to the title page, combined various printed materials not only with "A Paper-Book" but also with an erasable "Table-Book."3 In fact, where the table-book should have been, there appeared instead the following instructions: "Having a black-Lead-Pencil, write therewith upon the white Paper (as with Ink) what you please; and when you would take it off again, (as from a Table-Book) take a piece of new bread, and rub upon the writing, and it will take it clean off, so that you may write any thing there again. Perhaps to some this may seem idle and ridiculous: but it may easily be experimented, to satisfaction. Keep a Black-Lead-Pencil in your Book, and it will always be ready for Memorandums."4 What is really idle and ridiculous is that Every Man's Companion did not have the promised erasable table-book. Neither did it contain a pencil, which you had to buy separately. The instructions for erasing graphite, though, would have been necessary for many people in the seventeenth century. Graphite was first mentioned and depicted in 1565, but it was not in common use for writing until the later seventeenth century, which explains why these instructions are so specific. Bread certainly works as an eraser but not particularly well.

Franklin, however, appears to have been using a knife to scrape off his earlier writing, and that would have destroyed the paper much faster than bread. Franklin writes, "To avoid the Trouble of renewing now and then my little Book, which by scraping out the Marks on the Paper of old Faults to make room for new Ones in a new Course, became full of Holes: I transferr'd my Tables and Precepts to the Ivory Leaves of a Memorandum Book, on which the Lines were drawn with red Ink that made a durable Stain, and on those Lines I mark'd my Faults with a black Lead Pencil, which Marks I could easily wipe out with a wet Sponge.... I always carried my little Book with me" (71 ).5 Ivory had the crucial advantage of being erasable, unlike the paper that Franklin was using, which "became full of Holes" through constant "scraping. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.