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Just in time for Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, Penn Libraries have acquired a key artifact from the statesman’s life — his first ever printed work.

This Monday, on the 311th anniversary of Franklin’s birth, the Penn Libraries announced that they obtained the only known copy of “The Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose.” The broadside, which mourns the death of the Philadelphia poet and pressman, was printed in 1723 by a 17-year-old Franklin shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia.

The broadside contains a poem set in two columns of neatly lined text, topped by an unusual skull-and-crossbones header that may have been engraved by Franklin himself. Franklin’s skill at setting and printing the poem likely encouraged printer Samuel Keimer to keep him on as an assistant. It was in Philadelphia that he grew famous as a printer and a writer, eventually becoming one of the most influential men in America.

While the existence of the broadside had long been known — Franklin himself writes of it in his autobiography — for centuries, scholars had no access to the document. The Washington Post reported that the only known copy was located in the 1820s by Samuel Hazard, a Philadelphia historian who went door-to-door to search for the broadside. But it vanished again with Hazard’s death — until rare books dealer Carmen Valentino found it while perusing a purchase that included Hazard’s scrapbooks.

The rediscovery of Franklin’s first published work means that modern scholars for the first time have access to a document which marks the beginning of Franklin’s career as a printer. With the acquisition of this piece, the Penn Libraries now hold more than one-third of his print production.

The Washington Post reported that Mitch Fraas, a curator of special collections at Penn Libraries, declined to comment on how much Penn Libraries paid for the broadside, which will be on display on the first floor of Van Pelt Library through Feb. 10. A copy of the broadside is also available online.

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