Laura Dean Bennett
Before we had The Weather Channel and smart phones, we had almanacs.
Ever since the first one was printed in Mentz, Germany in 1457 by Gutenberg – who also produced the first print edition of the Bible – almanacs have been popular reading for many people around the world.
These handy little books contained a wealth of useful information.
They were compendiums of old-time wisdom about planting by the signs, long-range weather predictions, medical advice and a few superstitions thrown in for good measure.
Of course, almanacs were published in Britain long before they made their way to the New World, but soon after the colonies were populated, American almanacs made their debut.
Americans, like their relatives in England, made almanacs part of their daily lives.
It’s likely that almost every colonial American household owned a copy of the Bible, Pilgrim’s Pro-gress, and a current almanac.
Colonial American almanacs featured much the same information as is offered in today’s almanacs – planting dates, estimated times for daily sunrises and sunsets, tide tables, periods of the moon and sun, the rise and fall of constellations, solar and lunar eclipses and the transit of planets in the night sky- all handily arranged in a calendar format.
Almanacs were not only regular reading in the colonies – they were big money makers.
They were the most purchased items sold by American printers.
Many printers made their entire livelihood by printing almanacs.
Of course, like today, many people kept their almanacs within arm’s reach at home, but most also liked their almanacs to be portable.
So most publishers designed them to be small enough to take along when one left home – much like the cell phones of today.
Typically, almanacs were purposefully kept to about 4 to 7 inches and about 24 to 36 pages. This would have been a convenient size for carrying in a gentleman’s pocket or a ladies reticule.
Because almanacs were often highly personalized with notes and calculations, when one was lost, it was not unusual for the owner to place a newspaper ad offering a small reward for its return.
Few farmers were without a copy of the most current almanac.
Early Americans thought that the movement of the planets had a bearing on the physical processes of Earth, information of particular interest to farmers who relied on the weather.
Many would not have dreamed of planting, harvesting, breeding or butchering without consulting “the signs” in the almanac.
Even those who couldn’t read knew how to decipher the symbols used to communicate information about the signs.
And it wasn’t just the astrological and weather predictions in almanacs that folks relied on, they also used almanacs to predict their health.
Before the 19th century, the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars was thought to influence a person’s health.
It was also believed that the world was composed of four elements – water, fire, earth, and air, which also corresponded to astrological signs.
And the human body was believed to contain four “humors,” each corresponding to one of those four elements.
Each person’s state of health was therefore believed to be the result of varying combinations of the four humors and the astrological signs.
If the humors or elements became unbalanced, illness could result.
In addition to helping our ancestors know when they were going to be sick, almanacs often included home remedies and tonics for healing common ailments.
Almanacs advised on the best times to set sail from specific ports based on weather predictions and the alignment of the planets.
Almanacs also supplied a handy formula which enabled people to calculate local time.
In the days before reliable time keeping devises were worn on everyone’s wrist, this was useful information, indeed.
To get the exact time of day, one only needed a sundial and an almanac.
Depending on the time of year, one would add or subtract the number of minutes listed in the almanac, to or from the natural time one could read on a sundial.
Almanacs were also good reading – they often included jokes, comical illustrations, puzzles, poetry, good advice, biblical passages and historical information.
One of the most famous early almanacs published in America was Poor Richard’s Almanack.
It was published for 25 years – from 1733 to 1758 – by Benjamin Franklin, under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders.
Poor Richard’s Almanack was Benjamin Franklin’s most successful business venture.
It contained the usual almanac features – calendar, weather predictions, planting timetables and advice, demographics, recipes, trivia, and proverbs about industry and thrift, but also included sardonic political commentary.
Early American almanacs contributed much to the discourse of the colonies and perhaps even the formation of our democracy with their political essays and commentary.
Franklin, a champion of rational thinking and education, considered almanacs to be an important means of instruction for common people, who could not afford books.
Nathanial Ames, who is said to have published the best almanac in colonial New England, distinguished his almanacs with excerpts from great works of literature.
And almanacs even play-ed a role in preserving details of our history.
Because people kept notes on any blank space in them (and often even inserted extra pages in them for this purpose), their almanacs were really the equivalent of day planners or diaries.
Out of date almanacs were often filed with one’s important papers, as they could provide documentation of important personal, farm or business details.
George Washington and many other founding fathers did this, thus creating an absolute treasure trove for Early American historians.
Most of us are familiar with only two almanacs these days, The Old Farmer’s Almanac and its rival, The Farmer’s Almanac.
Both feature long-range weather predictions and each claim an approximate 80 percent accuracy rate for them.
Their weather predictions are based on each publication’s particular and proprietary forecasting formulas which are kept in strictest secrecy.
A hole was drilled through the corner of The Old Farmer’s Almanac so that subscribers could keep it handy by hanging it from a nail or a string.
It is released the first Tuesday in September for the following year.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a circulation of more than three million copies..
One historical anecdote about The Old Farmer’s Almanac really caught my attention.
It took place During World War II.
A German spy was captured in New York with a copy of the 1942 Old Farmer’s Almanac in his pocket.
Following that incident, and until war’s end in 1945, to comply with the U.S. Office of Censorship’s Code of Wartime Practices for press and radio, The Old Farmer’s Almanac featured weather “indications” rather than forecasts.
This concession to war time circumspection allowed the almanac to maintain its perfect record of continuous publication.
It might have “Old” in its name, but The Old Farmer’s Almanac is looking ahead to the needs and preferences of a younger generation of readers.
It began publishing The Old Farmer’s Almanac for Kids in 2005, and has since launched Almanac4kids.com
In addition to its official websites, The Old Farmer’s Almanac maintains a large social media presence on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Google, and other social media platforms.
The Almanac’s Facebook page has more than one million fans.
Incidentally, in the 1990s, the decision was made to discontinue drilling the hole in the Almanac.
The $40,000 per year cost was deemed unnecessary. However, reader response caused the company to rethink the decision and, as you have probably noticed, the holes are still there.
Did you know there was a town in Alaska that had a cat serving as mayor for two decades? Readers of The Farmers’ Almanac knew it.
Do you know the origin of the knock, knock joke or what people did to get by before we had toilet paper?
The Farmer’s Almanac brought these important stories to its readers, too.
Far from being anachronisms from the past, almanacs continue to be popular, even in these days of instant access to information.
As proven by their continued success, almanacs still have a place in many American households.
Meteorologists and other scientists have and will undoubtedly continue to cast dispersions on the accuracy of almanacs’ weather prognostication, but, even today, lots of us wouldn’t be without one.
Each fall, we eagerly anticipate the release of a new edition of one, or maybe both, of our venerable compendiums of wisdom and entertainment.
The Farmers’ Almanac is also keeping up with the times these days, and drawing a younger audience.
They have a prominent online presence, with a webpage and more Facebook followers than L.L. Bean.
The younger generation is realizing that the almanac is a resource for them. It’s wisdom from yesterday, but it’s also full of tips and technology for tomorrow.
In case you were wondering, The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting “teeth chattering cold” this coming winter for us here in Pocahontas County and the Mid-Atlantic states.
The almanac says it’s going to be cold, and it’s going to be snowy.
And it looks like winter might even start a little bit early.
But that forecast stands in direct opposition to that of The Farmer’s Almanac’s rival, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is calling for a mild winter.
I’ll let you know more about it in the spring.
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org