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Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Curious Case of Benjamin Franklin's Birthday

Benjamin Franklin on the facade of the Brooklyn Historical Society

On January 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin -- printer, author, inventor, statesman, Postmaster General, and ladies' man -- was born.

Or was it January 6, 1705?

While it is not unusual to have people shave off a few years to appear younger -- or add a year or two when they are young to give themselves more gravitas (see also: Alexander Hamilton) -- the discrepancy in Franklin's birth date isn't vanity.

Franklin was, in fact, born on January 6, 1705, according to what is now termed the "old style" calendar. When Franklin was born, Great Britain and its colonies still followed the Julian calendar. In 1752, when the British finally moved to the Gregorian system, everything was bumped forward by eleven days. Many people born prior to the shift kept their old birthdays, but Franklin happily shifted his forward as a sign that he was in favor of the move. (Most of the rest of Europe had been on the Gregorian calendar since the 16th century; Protestant England's distaste for all things "popish" was one reason they stayed behind.)

However, the switch in 1752 from January 6 to January 17 doesn't explain the discrepancy in Franklin's birth year.

That, too, is a result of the calendar change. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian system, New Year's Day in Britain was March 25, which roughly coincides with the first day of Spring (and which is also the date of the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was going to give birth to Jesus Christ).

With the switch to new calendar, the first day of the year was moved back to January 1. Thus anyone born in the period January 1-March 25 under the Julian system also had the year of their birth retroactively bumped forward a year, and Franklin's January 6, 1705, birth date was transformed to January 17, 1706.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Rear Views

James has a story in today's New York Post that examines many of the hidden homes in New York City that were once carriage houses, rear tenements, or -- as is the case in the photo above -- an artist's studio and theater.

"Washington Square, New York" (1910) courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The artist was Everett Shinn, a member of the Ashcan School, who lived and painted in New York starting in the late 1890s. Like many Greenwich Village bohemians of the era, Shinn wasn't content to merely paint and founded a small theatrical company to perform plays he'd written. These melodramas had
titles like “Lucy Moore, the Prune Hater’s Daughter.” Though not home to high art — the New York Times called one participant “the worst actor in the New World” — Shinn’s theater is credited with paving the way for the Off-Off-Broadway theaters of today.
You can read the entire story at

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Alaska Admitted to the Union

On January 3, 1959--sixty years ago today--Alaska was admitted to the union as the forty-ninth state.

There had been some jockeying in congress to decide whether Alaska or Hawaii would become a state first. Alaska--then predominantly home to Democrats--was championed by Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson as it would add two Democratic Senators to the chamber. To counter this, the GOP pushed hard for Hawaii to be admitted, which would add two Republican Senators and restore the status quo.

Today, those roles are largely reversed. Hawaii is a reliably blue state, and while Alaska's politics are harder to pigeon-hole, it is mostly represented nationally by the GOP.

Alaska became a territory in 1867 when Secretary of State William Seward purchased the land from the Russians for $7.2 million. Known as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox," the acquisition of such a large swath of mostly uninhabited land was seen as a waste to many Americans. A couple of years ago, we traveled to Sitka, Alaska, the former Russian capital, for the 150th anniversary of the handover. You can read more about those commemorations in James's story for The New York Post.

Alaska is both the largest and least densely populated state, with a mere 1.1 people per square mile. By contrast, at its peak in the early 20th century, parts of New York City's Lower East Side were home to 1,000 people per acre--that's 640,000 people per square mile--which some historians estimate made it the most densely populated place on the planet earth ever.

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