The Almanac in America

A History of the Almanac Genre

Almanacs in America
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In all my years of experience in publishing The Old Farmer’s Almanac, holding one up before a friend or visitor has never failed to produce a smile. Exactly why this is, I do not know. However, as almanacs are of so ancient an origin, I believe that when a 20th-century person sees one, the sight tickles something in his funny bone or awakens some pleasant experience from the subconscious, hence the smile.

Almanacs are of an ancient origin? Yes, one must start at least as early as 3000 b.c., with the pyramids of Egypt, Latin America, and the South Seas. The word “almanac” is apparently of Arabic descent and means a timetable of the skies or, in other words, “calendar of the heavens.” One can safely say that in most of the countries of the world, the almanac was the first publication. This was only natural, for mankind has always lived by the Sun and Moon and stars and planets and has needed some sort of a calendar of the heavens as a guide. When one could see the Pleiades, for example, through the opening at the end of one of the long halls of a pyramid, it would be spring.

There has been no history of almanacs [in world culture]; to do so would take many, many volumes. (One of the first printed almanacs appeared in 1473 under the imprimatur of German astronomer Regiomontanus.) I’ve had to content myself with American almanacs. However, even American almanacs are too large a subject to cover completely in a single volume. Not included in my research, therefore, are a large number of “newspaper almanacs,” such as The World Almanac, The Reader’s Digest Almanac, and the Information Please Almanac. They contain a vast amount of statistical information. I call them newspaper almanacs because there are many almanacs of this kind published for local consumption.

Indeed, the number of different almanacs published at various times in America continues to astonish me. One Milton Drake of New York City, for example, worked for some 25 years just to list the titles! His bibliography “includes some 14,000 entries and represents the almanac holdings of 558 institutions, 36 state libraries, 38 state university libraries, 39 state historical societies, the public libraries of the 10 largest cities, and 37 of the libraries of the 50 largest cities. Also represented are the Library of Congress, American Antiquarian Society, Boston Athenaeum, and many of the great university libraries. More than 40 leading private almanac collections are included. Libraries in all 50 states are included.”

Tracing the lineage of that vast number of old American almanacs known collectively as the “farmer’s almanacs” has been no easy task. But at least these old almanacs, once on the road, seldom changed format. One may differ slightly from another, but once an editor had introduced himself and his almanac to the public, he pretty much had to stay with the contents and arrangements of his first edition.

As near as I can discover, the distribution of almanacs in colonial America was largely conducted through country peddlers and bookshops. Often, a printing establishment would have its own bookshop. If it printed an almanac, naturally it would be on sale there. I have no way of knowing how many copies of any given early almanacs—even of The Old Farmer’s Almanac—were sold in a year’s time. I think there is a rumor of “never less than 50,000,” but I could not—nor would anyone else—be able to prove it.

I am inclined to believe that since most of the early almanacs were printed on one sheet of paper—eight pages on one side, eight on the other—that a first run comprised from 3,000 to 5,000 copies. When these were exhausted, perhaps two or three more editions would bring the total to 10,000.

The peddlers did not produce great circulation for the almanacs. Their progress from house to house was slow. They stayed for hours at each house trading off pins and pens, thread, pots and pans and brooms, almanacs and Bibles, clocks, or what have you for cash or produce which, carried back to the city, they could sell for cash.

A great many of the bookstores, particularly after about 1800, had their own names printed on the front covers of the almanacs that they sold in their shops. This practice sometimes led to editions that would be localized by extra advertisements and text wrapped around the original almanac.

As for publicity for these early editions, my studies indicate that before 1850, there were very few paid advertisements of any kind. There were announcements of horses and cattle for sale, ships wanting cargoes, stage schedules, and land opportunities. But they were more notices than they were advertisements—simply listings of what was available. I do not recall seeing any paid advertisements for almanacs in any of the old newspapers of that era. Once in a while, however, in a weekly publication like the New England Farmer, there would be what we today would call an unpaid-for reading notice. This one for The Old Farmer’s Almanac appeared on December 28, 1842:

The Farmer’s Almanac for 1843.

By Robert B. Thomas.

Once more our trusted and valued chronicler of what has been or is to be, in the risings and settings of the Sun, in the waxings and wanings, and the comings up and goings down of the Moon, in the ebbing and flowing of tides, &c., &c.—once more he has sent out his work and we wish him an extensive sale. 

The above excerpt is from the book “America and Her Almanacs” by Robb Sagendorph, the 11th editor and owner of  The Old Farmer’s Almanac from 1938 to 1970.  To be continued in the next issue of EXTRA! from The Old Farmer’s Almanac …

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