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April 13, 2006


Paul Hertz

Walter Isaacson in his excellent biography of Ben Franklin—Ben Franklin: An American Life (pg 313) relates a similar story. This is an anecdote recounted by Thomas Jefferson about Franklin. Jefferson was feeling distraught as his original draft of the Declaration of Independence was being subjected to some merciless editing. Franklin sensing Jefferson's distress tried to cheer him up.

From the book:

Jefferson was distraught. "I was sitting by Dr. Franklin," he recalled,"who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations." But the process (in addition to in fact improving the great document) had the delightful consequence of eliciting from Franklin, who sought to console Jefferson, one of his most famous little tales. When he was a young printer, a friend started out in the hat-making business wanted a sign for his shop. As Franklin recounted:

He composed it in these words,"John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money," with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their ammendments. The first he showed it to thought the word "Hatter" tautologous, because followed by the words "makes hats" which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word "makes" might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats...He struck it out. A third said he thought the words "for ready money" were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, "John Thompson sells hats." "Sells hats!" says his next friend; "why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?" It was stricken out, and "hats" followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to "John Thompson," with the figure of a hat subjoined."

This story was quoted from Jefferson's papers. Did this really happen to Franklin as a young printer? Who knows—but it's a great story anyway.

martin cohen

I remember reading this in "Treasury of Jewish Folklore" when I was a kid. It was, of course, set in Eastern Europe in a small Jewish village.

Steve Nguyen

That's a great story. So simple and yet powerful. I could picture this story in a short video clip!

martin cohen

I checked the reference. Here it is:
"A Treasury of Jewish Folklore", 1948, edited by Nathan Ausubel.

Page 347, "Poor Fish"

A fish dealer in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx [NOT in Europe] once put out a sign reading: "Fresh fish sold here."

The rest is essentially the same.


Thanks, Paul, Martin, Steve. It's a good, universal story...

Roger Barlow

grreat stoy and the points are well made. However, may i lightly point out a tiny drawback - FRESH fish has no smell. Only older fish smells.....

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