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Franklin in a Speedo?
18th Century Postal Service
The Best Laid Plans
Quill to Paper
Good Will Hunting
Hydraulic Fountains!


Herding Ants
Hot off the Press
Smallpox Contamination
Water Pumps
Why Lithuania?
Were We Full of Hot Air?

February 28, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

photo: all crew
Franklin field crew in Lithuania

Today, we thought through some of the “recreations” we’ll film. These are the scenes that show life as it was lived in the 18th century, and are particularly crucial for a documentary about an era before photography or video were invented.

Diligently, we dove right into the important facets of Franklin’s life: Printer, Writer, Scientist, Inventor, Diplomat... SWIMMER.

Yes, Benjamin Franklin is our only Founding Father in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. At a time when most sailors couldn’t swim, Franklin taught himself to swim from a book and then, true to form, set out to improve on the process, even inventing a few new strokes.

For our purpose of recreating his aquatic escapades, there is one compelling question: What would Franklin have worn to go swimming?

This is just the sort of quirky question that could take ages to look up in a book. It made me realize how urgent it was to get back in touch with an old friend from our days producing Liberty! The American Revolution: Robert Whitworth. He has a trove of books, broadsides, newspapers and cartoons from the 18th century and seems to know everything about the era. I e-mailed him our question, and his reply made me remember why I like working with him so much:

photo: "Franklin" after swim
"Franklin" exiting water after swim shoot

Hi Jen!

I can't imagine Franklin in a "Speedo" bathing suit (as a matter of fact, I almost blacked out now just thinking about it); so here's what I can tell you about his -- and others' -- swimming attire. In a "public" place, Franklin would probably have worn regular cloth breeches (most likely cotton) and, if he wore any type of shirt, it would also have been cotton. Most likely, he would have gone "topless." Knowing Franklin's disposition, in non public places, he might have gone "buck naked." Franklin was also a devotee of "air baths" (running around naked in a cold room). I'll bet he was a real hit at Christmas parties.

In Europe, there were cloth gowns (as in taking a dip in the Roman Baths at Bath, England). At seaside resorts, there would have been "machines" (small changing rooms on wheels), which could be rolled out into the water so the occupant could sit in it and get wet, or open the door and jump out to swim. Bathing gowns were sometimes worn for this, by the more timid souls.

I may have more info on Franklin's "swimming," but I can't think of where it would be at the moment.



March 7, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

photo: Jennifer Raikes
Jennifer Raikes at the

On the “recreation” agenda today was another one of Franklin’s little-known achievements: Benjamin Franklin was Deputy Postmaster General for the colonies. In this age without telephones, faxes, and e-mail, the post was the only way to communicate over distance. The Postmaster controlled colonial communication.

While talking about this grand job of Franklin’s, we realized there was a very basic gap in our knowledge of 18th century life: How did people send and receive letters in Franklin’s day? There weren’t mailboxes, were there? Did post offices exist?

The USPS website didn’t answer our question. So for more information, I again turned to our friend Robert Whitworth. He replied:

Hi Jennifer!

There were post-houses in Europe (and England at the time). In the colonies, there were no Official Post Offices as separate buildings, like we know them today. Letters could be posted at the newspaper office, or sent by way of friend or horseback messenger. Sometimes, taverns or inns in town were the place where one would go to post and or receive letters. Newspapers often advertised that there were letters being held at the printer's office for so-and-so. Fees would be paid there. I have a New York newspaper from 1775 which has a list of letters being held at the printers for different named people, also another from 1783, I believe.

An interesting note, is that for quite a period of time, letters were paid for by the receiver, although off the top of my head, I can't remember the actual date. Most government officials, military officers, dignitaries and the like were granted "Free Franking" privileges, which meant that they did not have to pay for postage, nor did the recipients of their letters.


As Postmaster, printer, and newspaper editor, Franklin was truly the postal ombudsman of Philadelphia. He was also a very active letter writer himself (a perk: as Postmaster General, Franklin did not have to pay postage.) But was it common to write so many letters? I asked Mr. Whitworth, how many letters might an average person have written or received on a regular basis?

He replied:

There's really no specific answer to this.

The general public might write/receive 2 or 3 letters a week -- or a month -- or a year. It all depended upon their need to write to friends, family or, on business matters and such -- or their friends and family's need to write to them. Of course, those who had offspring in College were probably inundated weekly with requests for "spending money."

I'm afraid it's a difficult number to put a fix on. A lot depended on how educated, worldly and elevated you were in society, too. The average blacksmith may have written very few in his lifetime, but someone like Franklin might have written and received quite a few in a short period of time. And because mail delivery was by post-rider, coach, ship, etc. the time element would vary. There was no FEDERALIST EXPRESS at the time, (or UNITED we stand PARCEL SERVICE), so overnight delivery was just about nil.

As to other methods of delivery, sometimes private carriers were used, who might be a friend or relative who was riding to another town would be asked to deliver a letter. Of course, those who couldn't write didn't --and those who couldn't read might ask someone else to read a letter they had received.



March 13, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

photo: Producers and DP
Producers and Director of Photography
set up a shot

Today was our first “Scholar Shoot.” We filmed interviews with two experts on the life of Benjamin Franklin: Keith Arbour and Claude-Anne Lopez. A lot of preparation goes into these shoots. The writer comes up with penetrating interview questions. The producers decide how the shots should look. The line producer schedules the film crew, juggles travel arrangements, parking permits, equipment rentals, etc. And importantly, a production assistant scouts out the nearest deli for lunch.

But when it comes down to it, in New York City, life revolves around real estate. This is particularly true when you are trying to come up with a place to film interviews for a documentary. We have a lot of particular requirements for the space: it needs to look appropriate to the subject matter of the interview, be big enough to fit the crew and our camera, sound and lighting equipment, without a lot of stairs to climb with all that heavy gear, and preferably, be free. The hardest requirement to meet: the location needs to be very quiet. Despite all the wonders of technology in this day and age, it really isn’t easy to edit out the sound of a cab honking just as the scholar makes a brilliant point. For a filmmaker, the best friends to have are those with large apartments in peaceful, elevator buildings.

One of our producers, Ellen Hovde, had a friend with just such an apartment and she’d generously allowed us to invade it for the day. At lunch at our office yesterday, over the sound of jackhammers pounding the pavement below, we chatted about our good luck. “Watch out,” our line producer, Charles Darby, joked. “Tomorrow, those jackhammers will follow us up to 93rd Street.”

Halfway through the first interview of the day, the road crew arrived. The noise made it impossible to continue the shoot.

With some quick thinking – and packing -- the day, though delayed, was saved. We made a last minute scramble over to producer Muffie Meyer’s apartment (calling ahead to be sure there were no more road crews to surprise us) and jammed ourselves and our carts of equipment into the living room. It was tight, but we didn’t miss out on Claude-Anne Lopez’s fascinating stories of Franklin’s youth. (Muffie was very glad she’d washed the dishes last night.)


April 18, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

Hopefully our documentary will convey the skill and wit of Franklin the writer, but today we are absorbed in the physical reality of putting quill to paper in the 18th century.

We’re preparing for a film shoot with Brody Neuenschwander, an expert calligrapher. We have provided Brody with samples of Franklin’s letters from different stages of his life, and he has been practicing Franklin’s handwriting. (As a warm-up, Brody had copied the Declaration of Independence, but complained, “the scribe was a hack!”)

We, too, have had to do our homework in order for the shoot to look authentic. We’ll be filming in tight close up, so the props are seemingly simple: paper, ink, and quill. But the devil is in the details: What kind of paper? What kind of ink? And how do you make a quill that writes?

I called William Reese, a rare book and manuscript dealer in New Haven, to find out what we should use to mimic 18th century paper. “Depends who you want to convince,” he replied. He explained that the only way to fool an expert would be to use actual paper left over from the 18th century. This is precious stuff. People who work with rare books pounce on 18th century tablets with unused blank pages. They’re useful for repairing rare books with damaged or missing pages. Forgers use them, too. Reese very generously offered to share a few pages from his private stash, but since we are planning to film for a day and a half and run through lots of paper, this didn’t seem like a solution. We needed to find a mass-produced paper.

Reese explained that there are basically two methods of making paper – laid paper and wove.

Wove paper is made by running pulp through two machine-operated rollers. This method was invented towards the end of Franklin’s life and nobody in his day would have used wove paper for writing letters.

In Franklin’s day, Reese explained, paper was made from linen rags, dissolved in water until they became pulp. Alum or another ingredient was added to provide stiffness. Then a screen (like a screen door) was dipped in the vat of pulp and shaken to remove excess water and provide a thin, even coating of pulp. It was let dry a while and then the paper was peeled off and hung to dry out fully. This “laid paper” bore the cross-hatched impression of the screen.

So it is “laid paper” that we must find for our shoot. At the suggestion of our ever-helpful friend, Bob Whitworth, I called the Southworth Paper company in West Springfield, MA, and spoke with Dave Gabryel who works at the mill there. He explained that, not surprisingly, no modern paper companies mass-produce laid paper using the same hand-made process of the 18th century. Now, laid paper is made on a moving screen that runs under a wire to smooth the pulp. Southworth produces about 20 tons of paper a day, which is considered a small run. Larger paper mills produce 1500 tons each day. Southworth alone produces 400 grades of paper, so I had many options. In the end, I selected a laid paper imprinted with a cross-hatched texture, similar to the screens of the 18th century. It won’t fool the experts, but I hope it won’t offend them either.

Ink. As part of the shoot, we will document the writing process from start to finish. So we need to gather the ingredients to make ink. Our producers, Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde, and the series’ writer, Ron Blumer, took a class to learn to make Iron Gall Ink. So we have a basic recipe:

  • 1 part gum arabic
  • 2 parts hydrous ferrous sulfate
  • 3 parts oak galls powder
  • distilled water, as little as possible

“And, of course,” added Ellen, “we need a mortar and pestle to crush the galls to powder.” Ellen, in addition to being a filmmaker, is a farmer. She gave me a funny look when I asked, “What’s a gall?”

Galls, she explained, are outgrowths of plant tissue caused by insects or funghi. They are also known as “oak apples,” but to me they look like marble-sized asteroids. Galls can be found at Chinese markets or, I guess, on oak trees. In New York City, Chinese markets are easier to find than oak trees.

The instructor of the Iron Gall Ink class was Karen Gorst. She knew a lot about the history of the ink, which has been in use since Roman times. “How did they ever come up with this?” Muffie asked. Karen explained that though we don’t really know the answer, it seems that the Romans first used the tannin found in oak galls to tan their leather clothes. Those clothes were clasped with iron studs. When sailors went out, the seawater mixed with the iron and formed something like ferrous sulfate. Interacting with the gall-tannin, it dyed the leather black.

Gum arabic is the secret to turning a dye into an ink.

To convey ink to paper, you need to sharpen your quill. For this we need a hot plate, sand, a knife, and of course, quills. Before he begins to write, Brody Neuenschwander will soak the quills in water. Meanwhile, he will heat the sand on the hotplate. When a quill is soft, he will cut the nib at an angle and then plunge it into the hot sand to harden it. Then, at long last, he will be ready to write.

Shoot Day with Brody Neuenschwander ,Tuesday, April 24th

After all my research into 18th century paper, Brody Neuenschwander took one look at my selection and told us the color was all wrong. Too creamy. It should be whiter. Oh, the best “laid” plans... (sorry.) Luckily he had brought his own paper.

We filmed tight-close up shots of the quill as it moved along the white paper. A group of us stood watching, hypnotized by take after take of swirling script.


May 21, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

William Franklin
Miniature portrait believed
to be William Franklin

Since part of our film focuses on the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his son, William, I have been searching for portraits of young Will. All that seems to be available is
the Mather Brown portrait, done after 1780 when William was in exile in Britain, and a profile of a younger William created in a ceramic medallion by Wedgwood. Neither of these images is entirely satisfactory. The profile view, though more age-appropriate to our story, isn’t very satisfying. It doesn’t let you look the man in the eyes.

I wanted to find earlier portraits of William. They may have once existed. As Charles Coleman Sellers tells us in Benjamin Franklin In Portraiture: In 1762, William Franklin ordered miniatures from Jeremiah Meyer to be set as bracelets for his wife. Benjamin Franklin wrote Meyer an angry letter in 1771 because they had still not been finished....

Today, a tantalizing discovery... While researching at the Boston Public Library, I stumbled across an old photograph donated to the library in 1900. The photo is a blurry black and white image of a miniature portrait of an 18th century gentleman. The photo of this miniature portrait seems to have been printed or taken by Charles Delahaye 3 Rue Adelaide Nice, France. There was no artist, owner, or date listed for the portrait itself.

On the back is a handwritten note identifying the portrait as "Governor William Franklin copied from the original miniature.” The note was signed "A.D. Bache."

Bache... William’s sister, Sally, married Richard Bache.

Sally Bache had a son named Richard, and A.D. Bache was Benjamin Franklin’s great-grandson. Alexander Dallas Bache, who was born in Philadelphia on July 19, 1806 and died in Providence, Rhode Island, Feb 17, 1867.

Like his great-grandfather, Alexander Dallas had an impressive scientific career and was an adept politician. The biography stated that he was an early adopter of photography in his role as supervisor of the U.S. Coastal Survey.

So did A.D. Bache make the note on this photograph, identifying the portrait as his great uncle? This will be a needle-in-a-haystack search, but I can’t help hoping to find the original miniature itself.


June 4, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

photo: producers and crew
Interview with series creators

During our research, we have noticed a lot of very fancy and powerful fountains in pictures of 18th century gardens. The fountains at Versailles, in particular, are amazing. Our line producer, Charles Darby, asked, “How did the fountains work? Were they powered by natural springs?”

Well it turns out to be much more technologically advanced than that.
Robert Whitworth explained in an email,

This was done with early "hydraulics", i.e. weights, counterweights, water
channels, etc. I believe there may be an illustration in Diderot's
encyclopedia, of which I have a copy (the one with over 3,000 illustrations).
There is a castle in Salzburg, Austria, that has a huge hydraulic system that
was used to spray unsuspecting guests. We got the full force of its effect
when we visited it several years ago. ...

Kind regards,

Bob then directed us to the Chateaux de Versailles website for information about its hydraulics system and followed up with more fun technological information:

The 18th century was truly fascinating. In addition to being the "Age of Reason" it was also the "Age of Enlightenment". Did you know that today's electric piano featured in rock bands -- is not new? In one of my Gentleman's Magazines from around 1760 there is an article on an electric harpsichord. And, believe it or not -- Rollerblades are not new either. The French patented a style of them around 1815 -- but they were around earlier in the mid-18th century.



July 9, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

Today, Laura Madden, one of our associate producers, is buying ants. She is highly skeptical about the wisdom of this act: “This is a disaster waiting to happen. And I just know it will happen all over my desk.” But she’s under orders to purchase 200 ants (of the most active breed available from Carolina Biological Supply Company.)

The ants are for the recreation of Franklin’s “molasses” experiment. Franklin noticed a pot of molasses covered in ants one day, and wondered how the ants all knew to find it. He decided to test whether the ants could communicate with each other. He hung a pot of molasses from a string attached to a ceiling beam and leading down to the floor. He placed a single ant in the pot of molasses, free to enjoy his fill and then make his sticky way to the ground. Within a half hour, the pot was covered with ants - demonstrating that the first ant communicated with the others to direct them to a food supply.

Laura can anticipate a trip to buy molasses in the near future.

July 12, 2001

Laura Madden delegated the job of purchasing molasses to our wonderful interns, Joseph Mowers & Gabriel Hankins. And, for unspecified reasons, Joe & Gabe set up a test of the molasses experiment right next to Laura’s desk.

Before we set up a real shoot, we needed to scope out the cinematic possibilities. We all gathered around to watch as a piece of rope was dipped in the molasses jar and then strung up from a doorframe, with the loose end leading to a plastic container of ants on the ground. Charles Darby, line producer and impromptu ant wrangler, lifted an ant onto the rope at the molasses end. Time passed. The ant appeared to eat the molasses. More time passed. The ant showed no sign of wanting to share his bounty with his brothers below. He kept eating. A few more minutes. There is whispered debate among the production staff: Is this ant being piggy or is he stuck? A consensus forms to coax the ant back down the rope to his buddies. We were hoping to see a long line of ants industriously climbing up the rope to the molasses. That was what Franklin saw!

But no luck for us modern day imitators. Perhaps stunned by their travels or feeling aimless without their queen, the ants were in no mood for molasses. And we gave up on the shoot.


July 16, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research

title page: 1742 Almanack
Mock-up of 1742 Poor
Richard's Almanack
title page

Hot off the presses. An urgent email to the ever-helpful Robert Whitworth:

Can you tell me about the printing process? We'll be doing this at Independence Hall, so the recreators there will know the mechanics, but what I need to know to prepare is: what did the pages physically come off the presses looking like? I need to create mock ups of them. In other words, for those little dinky almanacks, did they print multiple pages on one sheet of paper and then fold and cut? If so, how would they have been laid out? Same question for the Gazette. Were the pages of the almanack sewn together? Was the Gazette folded?

Mr. Whitworth’s reply:

Hi Jen! The papers were usually printed on a single folio sheet -- both sides. The paper was usually a bit damp before printing. After it was pressed, it was put up on (draped over) overhead racks to dry (usually the folding took place after the ink had dried and they were then folded in the middle). I've seen newspapers of the period folded twice, but I don't know that they were done that way at the printers. Perhaps they were folded that way for sending off through the post to subscribers.

Depending on the size of the press, the almanack pages would be printed in sheets of 8, 12, or 16 pages, which were then folded into "signatures" which were then sewn together. The edges were cut after sewing -- and most were not cut uniformly smooth. The edges were usually slit open like we do with letter envelopes today. If you run across an almanack with uniformly straight edges it was hard-bound into a volume at some time in its career -- and then taken out when the volume was split up for its contents.

If you want to see the positioning of an almanack's pages, take an 8.5" x 11" sheet and fold it in half horizontally, then vertically. Then number each page (you'll have to pry up the edges on some to do this). Unfold the paper and you'll see how the pages would lay out for publication. You'll notice that some are positioned upside down. Using an 11 x 17 sheet or an 8.5 x 14 sheet and laying it out in by folding it in half vertically and in 3rds horizontally and numbering the edges of the pages, you'll see how it would be for a triple-folded sheet. I've done a lot of this for the booklets I've been reproducing.

Kind regards,


June 13, 2001
Journal entry by Gabriel Hankins, Intern

On June 13, 2001, we sent Gabriel Hankins, who spent a summer working with us between semesters at Swarthmore College, to the New York Public Library. We were planning a shoot depicting a smallpox epidemic in Boston during Franklin’s youth. Gabe’s assignment was to find out how houses would have been marked to indicate smallpox contamination. Below is his report.

Red flags as markers of smallpox on the houses of colonial Boston

The use of quarantine to prevent the spread of smallpox appears to be introduced only partially in the period leading up to the huge Boston plague of 1721. Ships coming from the well-known endemic smallpox areas in the West Indies and Africa were by law anchored and inspected off-shore during times of disease abroad, but even this minimal level of protection was laxly enforced; at least one captain is known to have falsified his illness records, according to Winslow. The carriages running between major cities were sometimes “smoked” to kill the smallpox. More and more through the 18th century the authorities confined the ill to “pesthouses” which were boarded up and tended only by imprisoned staff, recognizing the dangers of contagion.

The danger in the houses, relatives, and apparel of the ill was not well recognized at first, however. Cotton Mather records in his diary an endless number of “bills of prayer” given to him by the families of the afflicted during the plague of 1721, who saw no reason to stay away from the meeting during illness (vol2, p. 624 etc.). He himself visited many of the sick in person, as he apparently felt no compunctions against doing; perhaps because he trusted in God’s will in this case, though he certainly took a hand in the disease with his fight for inoculation. During his account of the plague in Boston during 1721 he has no mention of the quarantine of houses or of the red flags later indicated, though this may simply reflect familiarity with such things combined with his rather solipsistic relation to his faith – a very personal faith which consumes his prose style as well as his soul.

There is a mention that the black seaman said to have brought in smallpox during the epidemic of 1721 was placed in isolation in a house “flying a bright red flag bearing the legend ‘God have mercy on this house’” (Shurkin, 145). During the later epidemics of the 1730s, red flags hung on inflected houses up and down the street (Winslow, 88). The “general court” of Massachusetts passed laws during the plague year of 1730 to prevent the concealment of smallpox and “requiring a red cloth to be hung out in well-infected places” (Duffy, 102). In 1742 this measure was extended to all infectious diseases. Measures were also taken to nail up the “pesthouses” and require the burial of all waste from such houses.

Why red flags? This is not explicitly stated in any account I could find, but apparently smallpox was long and persistently associated with the color red, as D.R. Hopkins relates, in cultures as widespread as ancient Egypt, early Chinese civilization, and African gods as well; the earliest Western account of such an association is in Averroes in the 12th century AD as an account of “erythrotherapy,” the treatment of smallpox by the application of red cloth, which apparently gained wide use in the West.

Further research into the details of quarantine scenes requires a trip to the rare books department of the New York Public Library and perhaps an appointment; they have a fair number of contemporary accounts in their collection, as well as broadsheets detailing the precautions to take against the disease. It would be good to find the account of strangers, who might find the peculiarity of the quarantine markers more memorable.

There are some good cinematic moments mixed up in all this for illustrating the atmosphere Boston during the plagues; Shurkin recounts a scene of never-ending tolling of bells, one for each of the thousands of deaths, as the streets are thickly draped with red (a recreation perhaps from the “Historical Account of Zabdiel Boylston,” the English doctor who promoted inoculation during 1721.) The attempted assassination of Cotton Mather with a “grenado” during the height of the controversy over inoculation is another colorful moment, showing the extreme tensions of the community at the time (“Cotton Mather, You Dog, Dam You” read the note wrapped around it). An atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and controversy certainly seems indicated; this was the atmosphere in which James Franklin’s newspaper injected its criticism of Mather.

  Duffy, John. Epidemics in Colonial America, 1953.
  Hopkins, D.R. Plagues and Princes, 1994.
  Mather, Cotton. The Diary of Cotton Mather. Vol 1-2, 1911-1912 edition.
  Shurkin, Joel. Invisible Fire, 1989.
  Winslow, O.L. A Destroying Angel, 1974.


July, 2001
Journal entry by Muffie Meyer, Co-Producer/Director

photo: Water pump and actors
Extras gathered around water pump
in Vilnius, Lithuania

We are about to leave for a shoot in Lithuania, with several hundred shots planned for the two-week filming period.

One of the shots that we planned is of people congregating around a town pump in the Boston of Franklin’s childhood. Suddenly, it occurred to us: were there town pumps in 18th century American cities? We made two calls: one to a key scholar/advisor, Keith Arbour, the other to Beth Gilgun, an extremely knowledgeable source for costumed re-creators and all sorts of diverse information.

Keith went to John Bonner’s “The Town of Boston in New England” and reported that there was a map from 1722 with two or more public pumps on it. Great – there were town pumps! Beth Gilgun’s email was also fascinating – about plumbing in the 18th century:

After about 1700, Boston had sewers to take the discharge from indoor pumps. “Probably no city anywhere had better subsurface drainage” than Boston.
“Twelve scavengers made money for the town by selling loads of the dirt and filth.”
Because lumber had to come from Maine, brick was Boston’s cheapest construction material in the 1760s. New houses usually had gardens in the rear, a private pump, and (after fire-prevention rules were relaxed in 1765) wooden outhouses.
To keep pumps from freezing in the winter, newspapers suggested pumping a tub full of water before going to bed, bringing warmer water up into the device. Some pumps were in cellars, others outside.

Boston from Carl Bridenbaugh,

Based on a drawing of an 18th century Boston pump from the Harvard Newspaper, The College Pump, supplied to us by Keith Arbour and other drawings researched by Andrew Jackness, our amazing Production Designer, Andy designed this wooden pump (which was then built by the Art Department crew in Lithuania):


Fall, 2001
Journal entry by Charles Darby, Line Producer

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to recreate 18th century Paris and London on a limited budget, what better place to look than eastern Europe?

photo: Lithuania street set
Redesigning modern street in
Vilnius, Lithuania to resemble
18th century street

Why not go to the original source – present day London and Paris? These two bustling cosmopolitan cities are filled with many historic structures, but the imposition of the 21st century is unavoidable. Filming, even on a street filled with historic structures, would require the removal of all vehicles, the covering of the pavement with dirt, removal of all street signs, street lights, the covering of modern signage. AND THEN, when all this is done, all the period historic elements that replicate 18th century street “life” must be brought in and put up. The imposition to the owners of all the buildings on the street requires that they be compensated. In short, to turn such a street back in time almost three centuries is a very expensive undertaking.

With the limited funds we had to make “Benjamin Franklin”, we probably could only afford to create one period setting in London or Paris, when in fact we needed dozens. Our problem: we needed to find a single location that was generally inexpensive (London & Paris are not inexpensive places to visit) and that had a plethora of historic architecture that was unscathed by the 21st century.

Prague became very popular with filmmakers in the 1980s, with the fall of communism. It has many wonderful historic buildings and could easily “double” for any number of European cities. Under the Soviets, the lack of a market economy and the fiscal conditions of the State meant that little had been done to “modernize and commercialize” the city. Many city streets, in the 1980s, looked as they had for centuries. But as money and tourists flowed into Prague, this rapidly changed. Old historic streets now boast McDonalds, Starbucks, neon signs, Prada shops, etc. Cobblestone streets have been covered with asphalt, in deference to the automobile. While labor costs are much cheaper than in London or Paris, it would still be expensive, if not impossible, to turn these streets back in time a few hundred years. We needed to find the “new Old Prague.”

A few calls to TV movie producers, who are notorious for taking chances on exotic locations if they can save a buck, uncovered Lithuania as a possibility. Lithuania had been independent of the Soviets for ten years but was off the beaten path enough that a tourist industry had not really developed. Funds were still tight, so that massive rebuilding and modernizing had not taken place. (The streets of the capital are still swept by hand using twig brooms). A film studio, left over from the Soviets, was located in the capital city, Vilnius, so there was an indigenous production crew that we could work with. After getting some picture books of various Vilnius streets and buildings, we decided to investigate further. We were amazed when we compared these modern photos of historic Vilnius to period engravings we had of 18th century London and Paris.

drawing: Covent Garden, London

photo: Lithuania University building
A View of Covent Garden London, c. 1751

University building in Vilnius, Lithuania, 2001

Because none of us spoke Russian or Lithuanian, we decided to communicate in “pictures.” We had storyboards drawn of the scenes we hoped to film there and sent them to Lithuania. The local production staff reviewed the storyboards and then went out to find appropriate locations that matched our drawings. They took snapshots and then e-mailed them to us. After reviewing the photos and getting an estimated cost for shooting in Lithuania for two weeks, we decided to go there. (It should be noted that it is unusual to go to a location, dragging six US and one British crew member almost half way around the planet, without going in advance and meeting the local staff and visiting the proposed locations). Unfortunately, we didn’t have the funds to send an advance party -- fortunately, it all worked out.

photo: shooting "Paris"
Crew shooting "Paris" street scene
in Vilnius, Lithuania

We shot for two weeks, and were able to film an enormous number of scenes in this limited time. For the most part, the crews were very experienced – all were hard working. The Soviet occupation had in some sense put Lithuania into a “deep freeze.” All we had to do to create a historic cobblestone street was to put up some historic signage, and fill the street with other period elements; other effects of the occupation, however, created some real problems.

When it came time to do interior scenes, such as a fancy dinner party – we couldn’t locate upscale historic tableware or other historic household furnishings. We discovered that during the Soviet occupation, the country had been looted of these sorts of things. Normally, when doing such scenes, the art department would rent the necessary items from antique stores, but very few antique stores exist in Lithuania, due to the dearth of antiques. We filmed in some old

photo: xtras in "Paris" street scene
Extras in "Paris" street.
Vilnius, Lithuania

mansions and estates, the exteriors being still gorgeous and grand, but the interiors were dreary. The Russians had stripped out anything that could be unbolted and carted away; and dull brown seemed to be the only paint color authorized. After a week of searching for the scene requiring a fancy dinner setting, we were able to locate a set of fine china. It belonged to our assistant costume designer – her family had kept it buried in their yard for decades, to prevent it from being confiscated.

All the film footage was sent back to the US for processing, so we were not able to review any of the footage until we returned – very nerve wracking. It was great to be home after three weeks, but equally wonderful to sit back and relive our journey to Lithuania as we watched the “dailies.”


June 4, 2001
Journal entry by Jennifer Raikes, Director of Research and Judith Adkins of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Yale University

drawing: 1783 hot air balloon
"Aerostatic globe"
balloon, 1783

In 1783 the race was on to achieve manned air travel. In a competition still raging today, adventurers of the 18th century were pioneering the effort to launch the first and best “lighter than air” balloons.

In June, Joseph de Montgolfier sent up the first balloon in history near Lyons.

As would be true for space travel in the 20th century, the first air travelers were animals. King Louis XVI watched on September 19, 1783 as Etienne de Montgolfier sent up a cock, a duck, and a sheep over Paris on board the “Martial” balloon.* And there were even the equivalent of UFO sightings: In Gonesse, north of Paris, villagers wielding pitchforks attacked an errant, unmanned balloon that landed in their village.

*from The Romance of Ballooning: The Story of the Early Aeronauts (New York: Viking Press, 1971), p. 13.

The Montgolfier brothers were not the only balloon enthusiasts. One of the other important experimenters was Jacques-Alexandre-Cesar Charles.

It was Charles’ balloon ascension that Benjamin Franklin, and 50,000 Parisians, witnessed on August 27th, 1783. Of this event, Charles Van Doren, in his biography Benjamin Franklin, wrote, “Franklin, reporting to Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society in London, thought it might ‘pave the way to some discoveries in natural philosophy of which at present we have no conception.’”

Our script for Episode 3 referred to Benjamin Franklin witnessing the ascension of a hot air balloon while he in France. But Judith Adkins, our fact checker, corrected us – it was a hydrogen balloon Franklin watched, though hot air balloons were also being experimented with at the time – as by the Montgolfier brothers. But how was this possible? How would hydrogen have been isolated by men who did not yet understand the concept of atoms or elements?

Judith informed us that there was competition among the balloonists. Van Doren writes: "There were at once two factions among the enthusiasts, some siding with Montgolfier and his heated air, some with Charles and his hydrogen gas. Franklin was not a partisan.

*From Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin:
Jacque-Alexandre-Cesar Charles apparently filled up his balloon with "hydrogen gas made by pouring oil of vitriol on iron filings."

For more detail, Judith referred to John Christopher's Riding the Jetstream: The Story of Ballooning: From Montgolfier to Breitling (London: John Murray, 2001), p. 10:

On Charles' hydrogen balloons: "The only drawback with this type of balloon was the difficulty of generating sufficient quantities of hydrogen in the first place--a long tedious process involving the reaction of dilute sulphuric acid passed over iron filings. As the acid and iron mixture bubbled away the hydrogen fumes were piped into sealed casks, where they cooled; they were then fed into the balloon's envelope. It was complicated and it could take many hours to prepare a gas balloon for flight, whereas a hot-air balloon inflation took only a matter of minutes. It was also a very expensive process."

Hot air, as used by the Montgolfier brothers, was created more quickly and inexpensively by burning straw.


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