Franklin in a Speedo?

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

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:

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.