It’s fascinating to read through early editions of The Old Farmer’s Almanac during the times of the early Colonial Americans. Come along as Jud Hale, editor in chief, turns the pages—with that twinkle in his eye.
The dissemination of news often required weeks in the early 1800s, but if you were to rely on the Almanac to know what was going on, the time delay could be as much as 2 years. It isn’t until the 1814 edition, for instance, that you can find any indication that we were having some sort of trouble with Great Britain. That trouble was the War of 1812. This mention consists of a list of American ships, with those in italics being “vessels which have been captured from the British since the commencement of the present war.” (These number two.)
In 1815, Yale is finally included in the college vacation schedules. But it is plain in this edition—and others—that the Almanac did not recommend a college education. “What better estate can you give your offspring than a good education?” writes “B.B.” in one of his columns that year. “However, I would not urge you to send them to college—nor to an academy; but see that you have the best of teachers in your town schools.”
When I occasionally find a copy of the 1816 edition, I immediately turn to the July and August Calendar Pages to see whether they contain the famous “snow” forecasts that founder Robert B. Thomas supposedly made for both July and August. I remain hopeful that a few copies still exist that do indeed predict “the cold summer of 1816,” as that summer is known in history books. There is no question that it did snow in New England and Canada during July and August of 1816. An 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indies had left volcanic dust circling the globe, lowering temperatures as much as several degrees.
But did the Almanac predict the snow that summer?
Certainly the story that it did is an integral part of Almanac lore. Some accounts say the printer inserted the snow prediction as a joke while Robert B. Thomas was sick in bed with the flu. The story goes that when Thomas discovered the “error,” he destroyed all—or most of—the “snow” copies and reprinted the 1816 edition with the more conventional summer forecasts. It’s said that the word got out anyway and that during the winter and spring of that year, Thomas was repeatedly called upon to deny making such a ridiculous forecast for the following summer. Then, when it really did snow in July, he changed his tune and took full credit. “Told you so!,” he allegedly said. If the story is true, it is one of the earliest and best examples of a subtle skill referred to as “almanacmanship.”
The 1819 edition marks the first time that Thomas uses the famous works that would become the traditional sign-off at the end of every year’s preface or “To Patrons” page: “It is by our works and not our words that we would be judged. These, we hope, will maintain us [later changed to “sustain us”] in the humble though proud station we have so long held.” In 1870, Almanac editor John B. Tileston added a facsimile of the signature of Robert B. Thomas. Since that time, none of us has signed off with his or her own name.
Why are these words so important? Well, when it comes to the Almanac, you just don’t mess with tradition. Or try to copy it, which is what Thomas contended with in the 1820 edition. Indeed, Robert B. Thomas turns downright grumpy. But then there’s nothing that irritates us Almanac editors more than seeing a bunch of cheap, fly-by-night imitators coming along attempting to fool the American public into believing that their almanac is the Almanac. Like what’s happening on newsstands today. Like, gulp, Thomas himself sort of did in 1792. And, judging from the following quote from his preface, like what was happening in 1820:
GOOD ADVICE FOR 1820
To shew [sic] how well our little work has been appreciated by the public, we need no other evidence than to witness the many new publications of the kind annually springing up, whose Authors appear ambitious of a similarity to ours, by copying our plan and form, and some have even assumed our title, which will make it necessary for our friends and patrons to inquire for the “Farmer’s Almanack by R. B. Thomas” to prevent any mistakes.
I could not have said it better myself.
To be continued in next month’s EXTRA! magazine …
For last month’s article, see: Sexism, Bed Bugs, Tobacco Smoke, and Type Size.