Almanac History: The Man of Signs and More

An Almanac legend highlights early editions of The Old Farmer's Almanac

By By Judson D. Hale Sr., the Almanac’s editor in chief since 2001.
March 6, 2018
Man of Signs
Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

Those quirky advertisements, the Man of Signs, and adding the word “Old” to The Old Farmer’s Almanac … Let’s look back in time with Jud Hale, editor in chief, who turns back the pages of the Almanac and our history.

The Man of Signs

From the beginning, this Almanac has been calculated on astronomy, not astrology. But just as we include a few pages of astrology in each edition, so too did founder Robert B. Thomas include an annual table designating “The Names and Characters of the Signs of the Zodiac.” After each sign is a body part: Virgo, belly; Sagittarius, thighs; Capricorn, knees, and so forth.

Early Almanac readers were very familiar with “The Man of Signs.” Before someone had a diseased arm bled, for instance, he or she wanted to be very sure that the Moon was located in Gemini (Gemini is in charge of the arms). Along with the signs, or separate from them, the phases of the Moon were used to determine the most propitious times for a variety of activities: weaning a baby, planting certain vegetables, quitting smoking, making sauerkraut—you name it.

Just as in Thomas’s time, Almanac readers today use both our astronomical data and astrological tables to determine the timing of a variety of events. The astrological “Best Days” (to do things) advice continues to be one of the most popular features and traditional practices of the Almanac.

“Old” and Not

In the 1832 edition, founder Robert B. Thomas inserts the word “Old” into the title of his annual. After all, the Almanac was almost 40 and, back then, that was old.

Two years later, under that mantle, Thomas reaffirms his no-nonsense approach to life. In the 1834 issue are 10 illustrated pages designed to convince readers to stop drinking hard liquor, a dominant Almanac theme in the years to come. “Never drink ardent spirit,” the article concludes, “even temporarily; for all drunkards were once temperate drinkers.” Perhaps there’s a smidgen of irony in the fact that not many pages removed from that advice is a chart indicating the distances “from one established tavern to another.”

He also actually comes out against good old-fashioned barn raisings and husking bees (social gatherings, common at the time, for the purpose of husking corn). “If you love fun and frolic and waste and slovenliness more than economy and profit,” he writes, “then make a husking.”

But Thomas may have been on to something: According to historian Jack Larkin (in his book The Reshaping of Everyday Life—1790–1840), New England farmers of this time took the Almanac’s advice very seriously. The husking done at husking bees was not “clean,” and much of the work had to be redone after the party. Plus, barn raisings involved lots of rum and hard cider. Bad stuff. So, increasingly influenced by the scoldings of the Almanac, gatherings combining socializing and work began to decline.

After the 1835 edition, Thomas inexplicably drops the word “Old”; the publication is simply The Farmer’s Almanac again (until 1848, 2 years after Thomas’s death).

Four years prior to his final (1846) edition, Thomas writes several compact pages about the previous 50 years of America and his Almanac, already the oldest continuously published periodical in the country. It seems as though he’s even become a little sentimental in his old age. He titles the piece “Fifty Years Ago” and celebrates his publication’s longevity and the changes since that time:

… Fifty years ago, the worthy fathers and mothers of the present generation were willing to dress in their own homespun … [Now] the waterfall and steam engine, the improved spindles and other machines manufacture millions of yards … [Though] we may not reach the 100th number of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, yet we shall endeavor to improve as we progress … and hope our Patrons will not be disposed to cut our acquaintance as a modern dandy would a rusty cousin from the backwoods. Because we look, as we pride ourselves in looking, a little old-fashioned, a little too independent to hang our dress for each “new-fangled notion”—a little t’other side of fifty.

In a sign of the times, the advertisements in the 1835 issue expanded to include more than just Bibles, psalm books, primers, schoolbooks, and stationery, all of which had been included—off and on—from the beginning. Now, offerings include steel pens and pen holders, slates, toothpowder, ink, and “camel’s hair” pencils, as well as maps of all 30 states in the Union.

End of One Era

Robert B. Thomas’s last edition is not much different from his first. His last weather forecast covers December 26–31, 1846. “Very fine for the season,” it reads. To the end, he was not one to venture way out on a limb. Next to the final weather forecasts are these prophetic words: “So, then, my friends, with whom I have associated for many a year, I sincerely bid you a cheerful good-bye.”

Thomas died of typhus in his home on May 19, 1846, 9 years before his wife, Hannah. Much of his estate went to the sons of his then deceased brother, Aaron.

To be continued in next month’s EXTRA! magazine … 

For last month’s anniversary article, see: A Walk Through Time.


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