MISSING: Benjamin Franklin's chess table
OBJECT: Benjamin Franklin’s Chess table
DATE: ca. 1780
MEDIA: Possibly fruitwood and tulip
LAST KNOWN: Displayed in the Loan Exhibit of the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 1963
What is it? A small, rectangular French table referred to as “Franklin’s chess table” by his descendants beginning in the 19th century.
Why is it important?: Benjamin Franklin may have made the most important individual contribution to the founding of the United States. Because none of his homes survive, excepting a house where he lived in London from 1757 to 1775, his surviving possessions are especially important to our understanding of the man and his world.
What does it look like?: See illustrations.
What is its history?: The game of chess was especially important to Benjamin Franklin and he likened his life of business and diplomacy to the game.
Franklin’s life was instrumental in the founding of the United States and influential in its course since. He was the only person to help draft and to sign all of the nation’s founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, in 1776; the Treaty of Paris, in 1783; and the Constitution of the United States, in 1787. In addition, he negotiated and signed the Treaty of Amity with France, in 1778, that secured France’s financial and military support without which the American Revolution would probably have been lost.
While living in the Paris suburb of Passy from 1776 to 1785, he frequently entertained friends, spies, and fellow statesmen. Franklin’s continued popularity with the French helped guarantee his greatest diplomatic victory, the 1783 Treaty of Paris, officially ending America’s Revolutionary War with Great Britain.
It was during his time in Paris that Franklin likely purchased the missing table around which he would have discussed his official duties as well as pursued his passion for chess. This would make the table witness to some of the most diplomatically delicate moments in American history.
Underscoring the importance of chess in Benjamin Franklin’s life are the large number of anecdotes, most of them likely apocryphal, about Franklin and chess. However, two of the most amusing stories are documented.
One evening, Franklin played late into the night with Madame Brillon de Jouy (1744-1812), a much younger woman with whom he was close friends in Paris, while she lay in the bath. Franklin wrote to her afterward, “Upon returning home, I was astonished to find that it was almost eleven o’clock. I fear that because we were so overly engrossed in the game of chess as to forget everything else, we caused great inconvenience to you, by detaining you so long in the bath. Tell me, my dear friend, how you feel this morning. Never again will I consent to start a game in your bathing room. Can you forgive me for this indiscretion?”
Thomas Jefferson recorded this exchange that Franklin had in Paris: "When Dr. Franklin went to France on his revolutionary mission, his eminence as a philosopher, his venerable appearance, and the cause on which he was sent, rendered him extremely popular. For all ranks and conditions of men there, entered warmly into the American interest. He was therefore feasted and invited to all the court parties. At these he sometimes met the old Duchess of Bourbon, who being a chess player of about his force, they very generally played together. Happening once to put her king into prise, the Doctor took it. 'Ah,' says she, 'we do not take kings so.' 'We do in America,' says the Doctor.”
Benjamin Franklin rented rooms from 1757 to 1775 at 36 Craven Street, London (now known as The Benjamin Franklin House and open for tours). It is the only house Franklin lived in still standing. His childhood home in Boston and the house that he built for his family in Philadelphia were both later torn down. For this reason, objects known to have belonged to Franklin are especially important to our understanding of the man and his world. The fact that this table is connected with Franklin’s chess-playing makes it all the more important.
What clues do we have?: The table was last seen in the Loan Exhibit of the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 1963, loaned by its last known owner Mrs. Benjamin R. Hoffman (Margaret Clawson), and is illustrated in the show’s catalog. It may have been sold at Freeman's auction in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1973, following the death of Mrs. Hoffman.