ALMANACS. One of the first publications to issue from the press in British North America was An Almanack for New England for 1639, printed by Stephen Daye in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Almanacs have been part of American culture ever since, adapting themselves to changing times while preserving their essential character.
In addition to monthly calendars and tables of astronomical events, almanacs included advice for farmers, medical and domestic recipes, and miscellaneous literary fare. Unlike their English counterparts, which often emphasized astrology and necromancy, the earliest almanacs in America stressed practical instruction and improvement. This was due partly to the Puritans, and partly to the environment of the more enlightened eighteenth century. Even so, most almanacs featured the "man of signs" or "the Anatomy," a crude wood-cut of a human figure, with corresponding links to the signs of the zodiac governing various parts of the body.
As printing spread throughout the colonies, so too did almanacs, which became an essential aspect of the printing business in colonial America. Timothy Green, James Franklin (elder brother of Benjamin), Daniel Fowle, and William Bradford were among several printers who originated almanacs in the colonies. By their very nature almanacs had to be adapted for local conditions and could not be imported. Almanacs were also used effectively in the propaganda wars at the time of the American Revolution. Nathaniel Ames, Benjamin West, Isaiah Thomas, Benjamin Edes, John Gill, Sarah Goddard, and Nathan Daboll produced almanacs that supported the patriots' cause through verse, essays, and graphic illustrations. The most famous compiler of almanacs in the eighteenth century was unquestionably Benjamin Franklin. Assuming the mantle of Richard Saunders, Franklin issued his first Poor Richard in Philadelphia in 1733.
In the nineteenth century, almanacs moved west with the country and continued to guide their readers through the seasons of life. As a rule, almanacs came with an explanation of the calendar, a list of eclipses for the year, the common notes, the names and characters of planets, signs of the zodiac, and the anatomy. They also included such practical things as interest tables, courts and court days, lists of government officials, population tables, postal rates, bank officers, exchange rates, and times and places of religious meetings. For studying the development of local economies on the frontier, almanacs are useful sources. Beyond the statistical matters, almanacs entered the realm of literature, broadly defined. Epigram, ballad, song, satire, elegy, ode, epistle, essay, recipe, joke, legend, proverb, belief, and anecdote were present in abundance.
Given such a fixed form, almanacs were surprisingly fluid and adaptable. They were frequently put into the service of various mass movements of the nineteenth century, such as temperance, antislavery, politics, and evangelical Christianity. Their ubiquity made them the natural standard-bearers for many popular crusades. Both the American Tract Society and the American Temperance Union issued hundreds of thousands of almanacs suitable for use in families, while the major protestant denominations also issued their annual registers.
But other almanacs were not intended for the parlor. As political campaigns became more sophisticated in their use of print, readers were treated to a steady stream of titles, such as the Jackson Almanac, Young Hickory Almanac, Hard Cider and Log Cabin Almanac, and Rough and Ready Almanac. While most of the campaign almanacs were filled with cartoons and invective, the Whig Almanac, published by Horace Greeley in New York, had a quasi-official status and was looked to by all parties for its accurate election returns.
Comic almanacs were also in vogue in the nineteenth century. Some tried to imitate the polite Comick Almanack of the English caricaturist George Cruikshank, but the most popular were not concerned with being polite. Turner and Fisher in Philadelphia and Robert Elton in New York were specialists in this line. With puns like "allmy-nack" in their titles, these publications carried bawdy jokes, ethnic and racial slurs, and humorous tales and anecdotes. The Davy Crockett almanacs were a genre unto themselves, combining aspects of the political and comic almanacs in one package.
After the Civil War, advertising, especially for patent medicines, drove the sales of most almanacs. Ayer's American Almanac, published by Dr. J. C. Ayer and Co., "practical and analytical chemists" of Lowell, Massachusetts, used the almanac for testimonials from satisfied users of their cathartic pills, sarsaparilla, ague cure, hair vigor, cherry pectoral, and other nostrums. This commercial emphasis continued into the twenty-first century.
In the twentieth century American corporations embraced the almanac. Ford Motor Company, Bell Telephone, Kellogg's, Seagram's, and Magnolia Petroleum are prominent examples. By sponsoring an almanac, corporations could find new audiences for their products and hope to induce brand loyalty through association. Almanacs also gained in popularity as reference tools. The World Almanac and the New York Times Almanac were well respected and frequently consulted for their accurate information. Regional publications, such as the Texas Almanac, published by the Dallas Morning News, reached targeted audiences. Religious sponsorship of almanacs continued to flourish; the Deseret News Church Almanac, published by the Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City, is a notable example. The Sports Illustrated Almanac appealed both to sports fans and barroom wagerers.
While specialized almanacs were abundant in the early twenty-first century, some almanacs continued much as they always had. The Agricultural Almanac of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, began publication in 1817. The Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, of Hagerstown, Maryland, was established in 1797. Both would be recognizable to their founders. The Old Farmer's Almanac, of Dublin, New Hampshire, became a bit glossier and thicker than its predecessors, but even Robert Bailey Thomas, the "old farmer" who founded the series in 1792, would find in its pages much that would be familiar to him.
Andrew Ellicott wrote in the Maryland Almanack for 1783: "One year passeth away and another cometh—so likewise 'tis with Almanacks—they are annual productions, whose destination and usefulness is temporary, and afterwards are thrown by and consigned to oblivion … it is no wonder, when they become old almanacks, that we frequently see them made use of by the pastry-cooks, or flying in the tail of the school-boy's kite." Historians, as well as cooks and kite fliers, can make good use of old almanacs, which reflect the passing years through the lens of popular culture. No other publication has been present on the American scene as long. Intended to be temporary, almanacs remain enduring sources for many lines of inquiry, from the colonial period to the modern era.
Drake, Milton. Almanacs of the United States. New York: Scarecrow, 1962.
Kittredge, George Lyman. The Old Farmer and His Almanac: Being Some Observations on Life and Manners in New England a Hundred Years Ago. Boston: Ware, 1904.
Sagendorph, Robb. America and Her Almanacs: Wit, Wisdom, and Weather 1639–1970. Dublin, N.H.: Yankee, 1970.
Stowell, Marion Barber. Early American Almanacs: The Colonial Weekday Bible. New York: B. Franklin, 1977.
See alsoPoor Richard's Almanac ; andvol. 9:Maxims from Poor Richard's Almanack .
No other publication attracted as loyal a following, nor had as widespread a reach, as the almanac. Every fall local newspapers throughout colonial America contained advertisements heralding the latest editions of the many different local almanacs. The annual announcements served as a siren call, beckoning local merchants, artisans, and farmers alike to the printer's office to purchase their traditional almanac, while salesmen arrived, acquiring almanacs in bulk before heading out to the frontier to peddle their best-selling item. Full of must-have information, like the days local courts convened, the rising and setting of the sun, and the dates of holidays, along with entertaining stories, medicinal cures, astrological prognostications, and favorite recipes, no other single genre of book was purchased as frequently as the almanac, nor was the market for any single item as fully developed or competitive as the almanac market. Yet these almanacs, pervasive in their local markets, could not be sold in other markets because of their highly localized information. A farmer in Pennsylvania could not profit from lunar and solar calculations for Boston, nor could a Bostonian benefit from knowing when a local court met in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The Revolution left most of the almanac's content unchanged. For all the upheaval it wrought, apparently that conflict did not alter America's litigious society or the movement of the sun, moon, or stars. Yet the changes that did occur and, more important, where and when these changes happened, provide insight into the creation of the new nation.
The most notable, yet subtle, shift appeared in the calendar, which formed the core of every almanac. The British calendar had peacefully resided in every almanac before the imperial crisis, but over the course of the Revolution, it shifted from a celebratory focus on English events, mostly monarchical, to a new, American perspective. Unlike government decrees mandating celebratory days, the almanac makers were free to determine what dates to include in their almanacs. Furthermore, because days, events, and astrology shifted from year to year, printers could not use standing type in their calendars. Therefore, every year they conscientiously constructed the calendar for the upcoming year. Inertia never controlled the almanac and because of the almanac's profitability and popularity, it can be inferred that popular sentiments implicitly shaped the calendar's outlook. Every fall during the imperial crisis, almanac makers and publishers needed to survey their contentious audience and determine how to make their almanacs as popular, or as inoffensive to as many, as possible. Although the nationalization of the almanacs occurred regionally during the War for Independence, by the 1780s virtually every almanac celebrated the declaration of independence in addition to many of the battles from the Revolutionary War. The shared celebration of the war and of independence in these localized publications helped foster a shared sense of national community.
Philadelphia and Boston served as printing centers for almanacs, accounting for over 70 percent of all the almanacs printed. Philadelphia is remembered as the home of the Continental Congress and birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787. It also is synonymous with early American almanacs, thanks in large part to Philadelphia printer cum politician Benjamin Franklin, who produced Poor Richard's Almanack (1732–1757). But at the time of the imperial crisis, Franklin had given up printing, and the almanac market was far more robust than it ever had been during his years as a printer. In Franklin's time, there were perhaps five or six competing almanacs, but by the imperial crisis Philadelphia printers produced, on average, twelve different almanacs annually, accounting for over 40 percent of all almanacs in the colonies.
The New England market produced no less than a dozen different almanac makers and accounted for 30 percent of all almanacs produced. Here, almanac maker Nathaniel Ames of Massachusetts created a massive following, which his son, Nathaniel Ames Jr., inherited in 1765. At the time, it is likely that Ames's almanac outsold any other almanac produced in the colonies. Throughout the imperial crisis, Ames Jr. turned his almanac into a political pamphlet. This trend was soon duplicated by other popular compilers like Benjamin West and Nathaniel Low, both also of Massachusetts. During the Revolution, the New England almanac was transformed from an innocuous serial to a political pamphlet to a source of news dissemination and progenitor of national identity. Often the almanac published accounts of battles, and images of George Washington, Horatio Gates, and John Hancock adorned the frontispiece. Thus, almanacs established a nationalizing trend later replicated in the other areas of the country during the early Republic.
The vitality of the almanac market did not wane after the Revolution. With the retirement of Ames and his peers, the early Republic witnessed the rise of a new generation of popular almanac makers. Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught free black living in Maryland and Washington, D.C., proved to be one of the most popular compilers in the 1790s.
The market explosion that characterized the early Republic also affected almanacs. Between 1765 and 1785, printers produced just over seven hundred almanacs. In the fifteen years immediately following the departure of the last British troops from New York City, production increased by over 140 percent, resulting in almost one thousand almanacs. In the early nineteenth century, American printers produced on average almost one hundred different almanacs a year, often in areas that had not even had printers prior to the Revolution. Such a large circulation of often overtly nationalistic almanacs helped create a national community bound by a shared calendar focused on independence.
See alsoPrinters .
Franklin, Benjamin V., ed. Boston Printers, Publishers, and Booksellers: 1640–1800. Boston: Hall, 1980.
Raymond, Allan R. "To Reach Men's Minds: Almanacs and the American Revolution, 1760–1777." New England Quarterly 51 (1978): 370–371.
Stowell, Marion Barber. Early American Almanacs: The Colonial Weekday Bible. New York: Franklin, 1977.
Guidebooks. Before 1700 early Americans got their news about the world from random and inconstant sources: the neighbor next door, the clergyman on Sunday mornings, the stranger on the road. But one consistent source of information was the annual almanac. It was a potpourri of news and information. Aside from predicting the weather and the date of the harvest moon, almanacs listed recipes, court dates and locations, and the routes and mileages of local roads. They provided chronologies of events and became the most important vehicle for spreading scientific knowledge in early America.
Astrology and Astronomy. Alongside the most recent European discoveries, the reader of an almanac found astrological tables and diagrams. Benjamin Franklin, more out of playfulness than seriousness, included astrology and prophecies in his first edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732). But clearly early Americans expected astrological tables and symbols in their almanacs. There was still a pervasive belief in the influence of the planets on human affairs. Perhaps because almanac publishers were less credulous and more rational, they countered astrology with astronomy. The first edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack also included the dates of two lunar and two solar eclipses. Three years later the almanac had a full “description of the planets” in which Franklin provided a detailed guide for the amateur astronomer. As the years passed and Franklin’s own knowledge increased, he included tables on planetary motions, descriptions and diagrams of eclipses, and information on such astronomical events as the transit of Mercury across the disk of the sun. Poor Richard’s Almanack for 1753 and 1754 included extensive analyses on the distance, appearance, and orbits of planets; an inquiry into the nature of comets; and a discussion of Sir Isaac Newton’s ideas on planetary astronomy.
The daily weather fascinated early American scientists. They kept track of wind direction, changes in temperature, and types of precipitation. Rarely were they able to form valid explanations for weather patterns, much less make accurate predictions. Even so, almanac publishers spent a great deal of print and paper making predictions. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack did its share of weather forecasting from 1732 to 1757. Yet Franklin set himself apart from others with his ability to observe and to analyze weather patterns. In October 1743 a storm prevented Franklin from observing a lunar eclipse. The storm was what New Englanders call a Nor’easter, named for the strong winds from the Northeast. Franklin discovered that Bostonians (living to the Northeast of Philadelphians) observed the eclipse before the storm hit. If the winds blew in from the Northeast, why did the storm hit Philadelphia before Boston? Franklin explained it by thinking about how a fireplace moves air. The fire heats air that rises up the chimney. “The air next [to] the chimney,” Franklin explained in a letter, “flows in to supply its place...; and in consequence the rest of the air successively, quite back to the door.” Likewise, low-pressure rain- or snowstorms that develop along the southeast Atlantic coast move northeast, displacing air. These storms are also called cyclones because they cause winds to move counterclockwise. Franklin realized that as the storm moved up the coast, it paradoxically caused winds to blow from the Northeast when common sense told him they should blow from the Southwest, the direction from which the storm came.
New Science. Few almanac publishers were original thinkers. They borrowed their ideas from Europeans and then communicated them to the American reading public. The almanac was something of a textbook of the new ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, and Newton. In the 1600s most people in America thought that the sun literally rose and set in its orbit around the
earth. By the mid eighteenth century more Americans realized that the ancient idea of an earth-centered universe was wrong. Almanacs did their part in teaching this new conception of the universe. In 1659 the first almanac produced in America, Zechariah Brigden’s A Brief Explication and Proof of the Philolaick Systeme, presented a formal attack on the Ptolemaic (geocentric) universe. A 1674 almanac discussed Kepler’s theory of the elliptical trajectory of planets. A few years later the almanac of John Foster discarded the ancient idea of the “fixed stars” in favor of Galileo’s idea of an infinite universe. During the eighteenth century almanacs carried information on Newton’s laws of motion. Often it was in the annual almanac that colonists first read about Deism, a philosophy that maintained the universe worked without divine intervention. Poor Richard’s Almanack frequently discussed deist ideas.
Benjamin Franklin, The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks, 2 volumes (Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1970).