Pieces of cloth (three), 1774-1785
Piece in
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Piece in "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World." Photo by Peter Harholdt, 2004

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This fabric is cut and voided in strips or “wales,” creating what could be described as a wide-wale velvet corduroy. The pile stripes are about 1/4 inch wide and the flat fabric stripes between them are about 1/16 inch wide. The color of the velvet pile is now gray-brown; the woven base is pale beige; there are orange threads along one edge of the piece, and a seam that runs vertically, with the pile. The swatch that contains the vertical seam also shows evidence of a horizontal seam along its lower edge that was picked.

The swatches owned by The Franklin Institute all appear to be of the same "stuff." Two are rectangular, and one is a tiny triangular scrap, glued to a small piece of paper on which is written "Piece of Dr. Franklin's coat."

The swatches are said to be of the "Manchester Velvet" worn by Franklin when he appeared before a Committee of Parliament, House of Lords, London (where he was accused of treasonous behavior), and at the signing of a treaty between France and America. It now seems unlikely that Franklin wore the same coat to both events, though the care with which the fabric swatches have been preserved in the family argues convincingly for their having been cut from one of Franklin's pieces of clothing, possibly after his death, and preserved as tokens.

One swatch is attached to a heavy display cardboard, and covered by a clear plastic or plexiglass rectangle. On the cardboard is drawn a cartoon of Franklin, the title "BENJAMIN / FRANKLIN'S / COAT," and a caption describing it as a fragment of a Manchester velvet coat worn by Franklin when he appeared before the English Privy Council in 1774 and again at the signing of the peace treaty between Britain and the new United States after the Revolutionary War. This information is not borne out by other descriptions of the event, and demands additional research before being passed on.

The smallest fragment is stored in a tiny, green cardboard box bearing the name of the Philadelphia jeweler Bailey & Co. (precursor of the later 20th century jewelers Bailey, Banks and Biddle). That box, in turn, is housed within a larger cardboard box from the Philadelphia jeweler J.E. Caldwell & Co. On that box is written "MH Bache/1913 Rittenhouse St./ Philadelphia."

One of the donors cited an article in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography (vol. 23, 1899), entitled "Franklin's Ceremonial Coat," which says the coat was worn in January 1774 before the British Privy Council and also at signing of treaties with France in February 1778.

The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a complete suit of Franklin’s clothes (now stored at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.). It has been suggested that the pieces of cloth owned by The Franklin Institute are of the same material as the MHS suit because they have acquired identical histories, but this does not seem to be the case.

One of the larger swatches is included in the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary exhibition.
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