Explore Philadelphia

Historically Speaking with Ken Sandberg

The Philadelphia historical reenactor plays John Dunlap on the Independence After Hours tour and clues us in to Philly's must-see attractions.

Most days, you can find Minnesota-native Ken Sandberg in historic Philadelphia. He’ll most likely be dressed in 18th century garb, speaking with a heavy Irish brogue and respond only to the name John Dunlap. In his seventh season with Historic Philadelphia, Sandberg has played the roles of Dunlap, the official printer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Thomas Jefferson and a Once Upon a Nation storyteller. We got to chat with him about his experiences in Philadelphia, both in and out of character.


Tell us more about the Independence After Hours tour.

Independence After Hours is an evening tour in Historic Philadelphia. You are treated to a three-course dinner at the City Tavern. You will meet historic figures like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. [And then] you’ll go on a private tour of Independence Hall. It’s a great time.


Where does John Dunlap fit into the history of the Declaration of Independence?

John Dunlap was born in Ireland in 1747. When he was ten years old, he came to Philadelphia and became an apprentice printer with his uncle, William Dunlap. In 1771, William Dunlap—who taught him everything about printing—found religion and became a priest down in Virginia, and left the printing business to John Dunlap. He became the official printer to the Second Continental Congress. That’s why he got to print the Declaration of Independence. He [later] lost that job because he accidentally printed a letter from Thomas Paine leaking the secret that the French were going to aid the Americans in the Revolution in his newspaper.


What is it like portraying John Dunlap in Philadelphia?

I really love getting to work as Dunlap. I get to tell people a great, untold story in American history of this very important figure that no one has ever heard of.

Independence After Hours
Ken Sandberg portrays John Dunlap, the official printer of The Declaration of Independence, on the Independence After Hours tour. (©M. KENNEDY/VISIT PHILADELPHIA

What is the craziest thing that has ever happened to you while in character?

I was proposed to [while] trapped in the corner of the upholstery shop in the Betsy Ross House. I was walking around the streets and [met] a group of young women from the Midwest. Apparently this one young woman became infatuated with Dunlap and his dashing Irish brogue.  


Any other interesting experiences?

Another fascinating thing that happens with some regularity is that people will pull out their cell phones on the tour and start quizzing [me] on the history of John Dunlap. The first question is invariably, “how do you like Elizabeth?” because that’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page for John Dunlap. He was married in 1773 to Elizabeth Hayes Ellison. For some reason, they think they’re going to stump me by asking about my wife. What’s great about it is everyone thinks they’re being original and clever. It’s actually kind of adorable.


How long have you been a historical reenactor?

This is my seventh season with Historic Philadelphia. I play John Dunlap and Thomas Jefferson. Also, during the day, I am a storyteller at the Historic Philadelphia Once Upon A Nation storytelling benches, which is a great program. There are ten of them scattered all over Old City. All you do is come by, sit down and you get a free story.


What are the must-do experiences in Philly?

A lot of people don’t realize that Philadelphia is a great theater town. We have the Wilma, Walnut and Arden theaters and lots of smaller companies. Figure out what shows are running when you’re coming to visit and go see some theater!

The Wilma Theater
Catch cutting-edge, innovative plays at The Wilma Theater. (©G. WIDMAN/VISIT PHILADELPHIA)

What is your favorite Philadelphia museum?

I have spent so many afternoons wandering around the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It has an amazing collection and [exhibits] are always rotating. Your admission ticket also gets you into the Rodin Museum just down the street. It’s a much smaller museum, but it’s well worth the visit.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Find major works of fine art at the world-famous Philadelphia Museum of Art. (©G. WIDMAN/VISIT PHILADELPHIA)

How will you spend Fourth of July?

I will be portraying Thomas Jefferson out in Valley Forge, PA, and I will be reading the Declaration of Independence to the masses. If you go out there, we will have Once Upon A Nation Storytelling Benches, special readings and a military muster.


What is the best day trip you would recommend?

I was just at Grounds for Sculpture out in New Jersey. It’s a big, outdoor sculpture garden. They recreate famous paintings as sculptures so you can walk around inside of old French impressionist paintings and the characters are right there next to you. It’s only about an hour drive from the city.


If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you want it to be?

I would love to wake up in Venice. There’s none of the noise of a normal city. I love the peace of waking up somewhere where the only way people can get around is by little boats on the canal, bikes, or foot.