This month we’re celebrating ‘Read an Almanac’ month by taking a look at one of the earliest printed treasures in America! Almanacs are special perennial books that come around every year to bring us information in the form of calendars, statistics, and predictions. This wealth of knowledge is used for farming, gardening, astrology, and planning daily life and events.
Almanacs have been around since ancient times and were used by the Egyptians, Aztecs, Celts and many other cultures. They became popular in Europe in the 1400s, and were brought to America during the Colonial period of the late 1700s. Aside from the Bible, almanacs were the first official books to be published in America. Most people only had 2 books in their home- an almanac and a bible.
Almanacs were practical and useful in that they contained information about the year ahead and facts gathered from the previous year. It was full of astrological advice, weather predictions, folk literature, practical living tips, humor, and information both entertaining and useful. Early almanacs had a hole punched through them, so farmers could carry them on their belt, hang them up in a tool shed, barn, or outhouse, or hang it on a telescope. Having their almanac around at all times was a handy way to garden and plant by the moon and zodiac, and to know when to set eggs or hatch chickens.
Aside from their very practical use, almanacs also contained folk wisdom, entertaining stories, recipes, and small business advertisements. Benjamin Franklin is known for contributing one of the most popular and entertaining almanacs called ‘Poor Richard’ which included humor, story-telling, and over 100 wise proverbs such as “a penny saved is a penny earned” and “God helps them that help themselves.” His entertaining style allowed him to be political at times in a funny, clever way. Poor Richard was most known for giving advice on how to live a frugal lifestyle.
Almanacs have been used for many different purposes throughout the years. Some have been used to promote presidential campaigns, or push a religious agenda. Others were used strictly to entertain and sell products.
Abraham Lincoln, in his lawyer days, once used an almanac to win a court case. He turned the page to a moon calendar and showed it to the court, then pointed out how the moon phase was a new moon or tiny sliver. This passed as evidence that the night wasn’t bright enough for his witness to have seen the murder.
German spies once stole an American almanac and used it to study the weather predictions so they could build a war strategy. What’s amazing about almanacs was their accessibility and widespread use. They were inclusive printed in many different Native American languages, over 11 different European languages, Hawaiian and Hebrew. This made them accessible to the common man, and they sold like crazy. In the 1700s when Philadelphia only had 15,000 residents, Poor Richard’s Almanac sold 10,000 copies. Another hugely popular almanac, The Old Farmer’s Almanac which launched in 1793, sold 100,000 copies. Another almanac, The Christian Almanac, sold 300,000 copies a year during the 1800s.
Throughout the 19th century almanacs shifted into more specialty magazines and comedy books. Still, some of the original Farmer’s Almanacs continue to be printed today. And there are still some things that are unique to almanacs-like flipping through and finding out if winter will be icy, snowy, or mild based on the inside of persimmon seeds. It’s quite amazing that even with the internet and modern way of having everything at our fingertips, it still doesn’t give us quite the same connection to nature, cycles, and community as the almanac, which has withstood the test of time.