The almanac was ubiquitous in colonial America. It provided essential information including weather forecasts, planting dates for farmers, and tide tables arranged in a calendar. Almanacs might contain essays, tools for making financial calculations, political commentary, a local directory, and space for doodling and recording. Nearly every household owned a copy of the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the current almanac. The first was published by William Pierce in 1639 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The most successful and well-known were printed in the mid-eighteenth century by men such as Nathanial Ames and Benjamin Franklin.
Size and Portability
Though some colonists elected to keep their almanacs in accessible locations within their homes, publishers designed them to be carried around, much like we carry our phones with us today. They were sized for portability. A typical almanac was about 4×7 inches and contained 24–36 pages. It was slim enough to fit into a pocket or a lady’s reticule (an early type of handbag). When an almanac was lost, it was not unusual for the owner to place an ad in the paper offering a small monetary reward for its return because almanacs had the potential to be highly personalized (more on this later).
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 importance to farmers who relied on the weather. An astrologist would be well paid to examine the night sky and make the necessary calculations. The results would then be published and used as a guide for when to plant and when to harvest. Astrological predictions were notoriously unreliable but in the absence of anything better they were followed carefully. Even illiterate people knew how to read the symbols used to communicate this essential data.
The premonitory powers of the almanac were not just confined to the weather; it was believed that one could use the almanac to predict one’s health as well. Before the nineteenth century, the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars, was thought to have a direct bearing on a person’s health. The world was composed of four elements—water, fire, earth, and air. The human body had four humors, each of which corresponded to an element: phlegm (water), yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), and blood (air). Each person exhibited a signature combination of the four humors. Someone with a lot of phlegm might have a cooler temper while someone with more yellow bile might have a warmer. If the humors or elements became unbalanced, disease could result. The four elements also corresponded to astrological signs. And so, based on an almanac’s astrological information, people were able to predict their future health. For more about how early Americans conceived their place in the cosmos, see “Urania’s Dusky Vails”: Heliocentrism in Colonial Almanacs, 1700-1735 by J. Rixey Ruffin in NEQ’s June 1997 issue. In addition to helping colonists know when they were going to be sick, the almanac also featured recipes for common ailments such as muscle cramps, fevers, and congested sinuses.
A high point of the year in colonial America was the court date. Since the distance between towns could be great, a judge or group of judges traveled around the colony, stopping along to way to hold trials. The almanac listed each travelling judge when they were scheduled to appear in various locations. People who had a dispute that needed to be resolved could have it heard without having to travel a great distance. Colonists who weren’t directly involved in a trial often attended simply for the opportunity to gossip, trade, and socialize with neighbors.
Almanacs recommended roads from major cities to various towns, listed “Houses of Entertainment” where the weary traveler stop for refreshment and rest, and noted the best times to set sail from specific ports based on weather predictions and planetary alignments.
Perhaps most impressive, the almanac enabled early Americans to calculate local time. One added to or subtracted from, depending on the time of year, the natural time read on a sundial the number of minutes listed in the almanac. Since mechanical timepieces could be temperamental, many colonists relied on this paper counterpart instead.
The almanac could serve as an account book. It offered interest and conversion tables, which were essential to calculating loans. Moreover, in the decades following the American Revolution when paper money from the US and England mixed with gold and silver coins as legal tender, figuring out exactly how much money one had could be complicated. The almanac provided blank charts for tracking income and spending.
Almanacs weren’t all about serious business. Many also included jokes, comics, and puzzles. One could find poems, advice, passages from the Bible, and historical information. Poor Richard’s Almanack, published by Benjamin Franklin from 1733 to 1758, was well known for its proverbs, which espoused thrift, civility, and industry. Some colonists inserted pages into their almanacs, converting them into day planners and diaries. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington used their almanacs in this way—a boon to historians. In an era when paper was quite expensive, the blank spaces within discarded almanacs were used by enterprising authors to share thoughts with family and to create wish lists, as Michael Eamon notes in “Don’t Speak to Me, but Write on This”: The Childhood Almanacs of Mary and Katherine Byles (NEQ, June 2012). Some almanacs were heavily illustrated with cartoons and designs to make them more visually appealing. Finally, almanacs contained essays and anecdotes with political commentary. For more on how the writings in almanacs reflected contemporary politics, read To Reach Men’s Minds: Almanacs and the American Revolution, 1760-1777 by Allan R. Raymond in NEQ’s September 1978 issue.
Almanacs varied greatly by publisher. Nathanial Ames, said to have published the best almanac to be had in colonial New England, distinguished his with extracts from great works of literature. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack was noted for its wordplay. Benjamin Banneker, who published almanacs in the late eighteenth century, was a noted abolitionist, and his views were reflected in the essays he chose to include in his editions. Notes on New England Almanacs by N. W. Lovely in NEQ’s June 1935 issue will satisfy this blog’s more curious readers.
Today, almanacs are relics of a bygone era, souvenirs produced for a public fascinated by Yankee culture. In the place of an almanac we use such inventions as the smartphone and the day planner to access information and plan our lives. We still need to track our finances and cure our colds, but in place of an almanac we now have Excel spreadsheets and WebMD.
American History, twelfth edition, Alan Brinkley, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007, p. 94-95