A Woman to Know: Jane Mecom

My power was always small tho my will is good. — Jane Mecom

("Jane Mecom, Her Book." image via Princeton)


Any child in America grows up learning every detail of Benjamin Franklin's life -- his time in his beloved Philadelphia, the time with the kite and the lightning, the building of the library, his role in the Constitution, his time as a diplomate in France, all of it.

But the reason we know so much about his life, down to his every feeling about the crafting of the Constitution, is because one relatively unknown woman took such care to preserve it. Franklin's younger sister, Jane Franklin Mecom, kept a treasure trove of letters, detailing every moment of her illustrious brother's career.

Benjamin taught his youngest sister, Jane Mecom, how to read and write, and the two developed a close bond that shaped the rest of their lives. For six decades -- through the Revolutionary War, the early days of the United States and beyond -- Jane and her brother wrote near-daily letters back and forth. When he was a bespectacled old diplomate and Jane but a teenage bride, he still called her his dearest confidante. She advised Franklin on everything from social etiquette to manners of state, and he sent her long, very-older-brother-like notes singing the praises of elegance and feminine modesty.

But despite some of the prudishness in his letters (counseling on how to make "the homely virgin amiable and charming"), Franklin took pride in his little sister's fierce independence. After suffering a poor marriage and several miscarriages, Jane took up for business on her own: making soaps. "Franklin Soaps" she called them, despite her new married name. She celebrated her brother's career and visited him often; and when he died in 1790, Jane fell ill just a few years later.

While her brother is memorialized in countless monuments and on the back of the $100 bill, no portrait or image of Jane survives. All we have is her name inscribed inside the books she treasured, many of which were gifted to her by her dear older brother.

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