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Ben Franklin, nudist?! March 12, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Yes, folks, it’s once again wacky blog search time here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Sadly, the barrage of wild and woolly search engine terms that often pour in over our virtual transom have given way, now that spring approaches, to more practical queries, as if our readers had put whimsy away in the shed with their snow shovels and padlocked the door. True, we’re still getting a few good ones, such as “cotation on butterflies” (would that be the powdery wing pigments?) and “finding olive seeds good luck” (only for dentists, we’re thinking). But then we received this classic: “Why did Benjamin Franklin dress.”

Now, it’s undeniable that Ben was what we’d call a health nut, at least in his youth. He swam in the mighty Delaware River for pleasure and exercise. He was a vegetarian. He was a teetotaler (possibly the only one at the time), advocating drinking nothing but water, and plenty of it. Dr. Oz would have been proud. Unfortunately, eventually all these good habits fell by the wayside, as his latter-day portraits amply (sorry, couldn’t resist that) attest.

It’s also probably fair to say that old Ben was somewhat more uninhibited than most (well, all) of his contemporaries, at least in the Colonies. (The court of Louis XVI was another matter.) Call it another quirk of genius.

But there would have been some definite drawbacks to roaming around in the buff, and not just the total lack of nudist colonies in Colonial times. We imagine that Ben’s appearance at the Continental Congress in his birthday suit might have proven distracting to his fellow legislators, who were somewhat preoccupied with a few trifling matters like drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 

However, the real reason why Ben Franklin dressed was because of a little climatic quirk that would doubtless have made his contemporaries long for global warming: He was living during a mini-ice age. You’ll recall that brutally cold winter at Valley Forge that almost brought his ally General Washington and co. to a literal standstill. (It’s hard to walk on frozen feet.)

This is the same mini-ice age that brought us the French Revolution, since it was so cold the grain crops failed in France, leaving the peasants, who depended on bread as their chief dietary staple, with nothing to eat. No wonder they became so enraged by that quasi-apocryphal comment of Marie Antoinette’s, “Let them eat cake!” (She actually said, when told that the people had no bread, “Then let them eat brioche,” basically high-end dinner rolls.) Starvation, it turns out, sharpens swords (or in Marie Antoinette’s case, guillotines) as well as tempers.

When Ben Franklin was sent to France as America’s ambassador, he famously wore a fur cap and fur-collared coat everywhere in public, basically the era’s equivalent of a Fess Parker costume. The sophisticated silk- and velvet-clad French courtiers found the outfit quaint and romantic—the spirit of the frontier!—and Dr. Franklin has been praised down through the centuries for the shrewdness of his stagecraft. But given the frigid weather and the lack of Franklin stoves at Versailles—not to mention a notable lack of hair on top—old Ben might just have been determined to stay warm.

Readers, thanks for cheering us up on a cold, muddy day! We’re sure our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin himself, is winking down at you from Heaven.

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