The Old Farmer’s Almanac is North America’s most popular reference guide and oldest continuously published periodical. Its history is as rich and diverse as the Almanac itself.
How the Almanac Got Off to a Good Start
Under the guiding hand of its first editor, Robert B. Thomas, the premiere issue of The Old Farmer’s Almanac was published in 1792 during George Washington’s first term as president. Although many other almanacs were being published at that time, Thomas’s upstart almanac became an immediate success. In fact, by the second year, circulation had tripled from 3,000 to 9,000. Back then, the Almanac cost only six pence (about nine cents).
The 1793 Old Farmer’s Almanac, published in 1792
An almanac, by definition, records and predicts astronomical events (the rising and setting of the Sun, for instance), tides, weather, and other phenomena with respect to time. So what made The Old Farmer’s Almanac different from the others? Since his format wasn’t novel, we can only surmise that Thomas’s astronomical and weather predictions were more accurate, the advice more useful, and the features more entertaining.
Based on his observations, Thomas used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a secret weather forecasting formula, which brought uncannily accurate results, traditionally said to be 80 percent accurate. (Even today, his formula is kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.)
Thomas’s last edition, in 1846, was not much different from his first, over 50 years earlier. However, in that time he established The Old Farmer’s Almanac as America’s leading periodical by outselling and outlasting the competition. He died in 1846 at the age of 80, supposedly reading page proofs for the 1847 edition.
The Almanac Hits Its Stride
The new editor, John H. Jenks, was helped by the fact that Thomas had already calculated the astronomical material for several future editions. In 1848 Jenks permanently and officially added the Old to the title of the Almanac. It had been previously known as The Farmer’s Almanac, except in 1832 when Thomas had inserted the word Old (but he inexplicably dropped it from the title three years later).
Jenks’s next change came in 1851, when he featured a four seasons drawing on the cover by artist Henry Nichols. This drawing has been on the cover of every edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac ever since.
In 1861, Charles L. Flint became editor and provided his readers with a heavy emphasis on farming. The next two editors, John Boies Tileston and Loomis Joseph Campbell, served short terms and did little more than keep the Almanac going in the traditional format.
Robert Ware took over as sixth editor in 1877, but his main interest was the publishing business, and he probably delegated many of the editorial tasks. Ware’s brother, Horace, took the reins in 1900. During his 19 years as editor, he began to orient the book toward a more general audience by replacing the scientific agriculture articles with general features on nature and modern life.
The eighth and ninth editors, Frank Newton and Carroll Swan, kept the Almanac tradition alive even during times of war and the Depression. (Even to this date, The Old Farmer’s Almanac has never missed a single year of publication.)
Greatest of All Almanac Blunders
Roger Scaife was appointed editor in 1936. His term coincided with the only time in the history of the Almanac that it declined precipitously in circulation and financial stability. (The 1938 edition had a circulation of only 88,000, compared with 225,000 in 1863!) Scaife also committed the greatest of all Almanac blunders: He dropped the weather forecasts! In their place, he substituted temperature and precipitation averages. The public outcry was so great that he reinstated the forecasts in the next year’s edition, but it was too late to save his reputation.
Robb Sagendorph knew a good deal when he saw one, and in 1939 he bought The Old Farmer’s Almanac and became editor. Sagendorph, who had moved his family to tiny Dublin, New Hampshire, four years earlier to start Yankee Magazine, now held the future of the Almanac in his hands. Luckily, he had a strong grip, a keen sense of the publishing business, and a nurturing heart devoted to tradition.
Sagendorph, feeling that tradition was the Almanac’s strongest suit, immediately reestablished its format and editorial style to be more as it was under Robert B. Thomas. As a result, The Old Farmer’s Almanac became witty, wise, and more entertaining, as it had been a hundred years earlier.
In 1942, a German spy was apprehended by the FBI after being landed on Long Island, New York, by a U-boat the night before. The impact of this event was felt all the way to Dublin, New Hampshire, because The Old Farmer’s Almanac was found in his coat pocket. The U.S. government speculated that the Germans were using the Almanac for weather forecasts, which meant that the book was indirectly supplying information to the enemy.
Fortunately, Sagendorph managed to get the government to agree that there would be no violation of the “Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press” if the Almanac featured weather indications rather than forecasts. It was a close call that almost ruined the Almanac’s perfect record of continuous publication.
The story since World War II has been one of growth and expanded range. The Almanac passed the four million circulation mark in the early 1990s. Robb Sagendorph died in 1970, after 30 years as editor, and his nephew, Judson Hale, took over.
In 2000, Janice Stillman became the 13th (and first female) editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She maintains the style established by her predecessors, the editorial direction taken by Hale, and a true dedication to hundreds of years of tradition while striving always to appear brand-spanking-new.
Learn more about the Almanac’s origins, history, and odd moments along its path to North America’s most popular reference book! Watch The Old Farmer’s Almanac Documentary Video!