Sexism, Bed Bugs, Tobacco Smoke, and Type Size

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

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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.

Almanac founder Robert B. Thomas and other almanac editors of his day designed their material for men. It was a male-dominated society, and although New Englanders were generally more literate than most Americans, American women everywhere lagged behind American men in literacy. Girls were often kept from school, while boys were generally taught the rudiments of reading, writing, and “calculating.” So, early Almanac jokes are based on all the old stereotypes, especially that of the talkative woman. The theme appears in numerous editions, starting with that very first edition in 1793:

Question: Will you instruct your daughter in the different languages?

Answer: No, sir. One tongue’s enough for a woman.

The 1794 edition sheds light on life in those days. One article presented “A Cheap, Easy, and Clean Mixture for Effectively Destroying Bed Bugs,” which consisted of wine, turpentine, and a half-ounce of camphor. In the next edition appears the “direction for recovering persons apparently dead from drowning as recommended by the Humane Society.” Specifically, one is to “blow tobacco smoke into the fundament with a fumigator.” Difficult to imagine how blowing tobacco up there would bring anyone around, but …

The arrival of the new century isn’t mentioned in the 1800 edition, and the Almanac went to press prior to George Washington’s death in December 1799, so there’s no mention of that either. But you can learn that the Salem, Massachusetts, mail stage “starts from Major King’s tavern every day in the week (Sundays excepted) at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and arrives in Boston every day at 11 o’clock in the morning.” For those who prefer to travel on their own, there’s a strong warning not to “suffer your horses to be frequently harnessed in a pleasure sleigh and be careful when they are, not to suffer them to be driven by young and inexperienced drivers.”

The 1801 edition announces the “25th year of Independence of America,” but Thomas doesn’t make anything of it. It’s obvious that he’s not one for frivolity and celebrating. “Cut your clover,” he grumbles, “and mind your business.”

In the 1803 edition, I found the first Almanac joke that made me smile.

When Pat shot at a hawk on the top limb of a tree and it fell to the ground with a thud, Mike said, “Pat, you might have saved your powder and shot, for the fall would have killed it.”

(Well, I didn’t say that it was hilarious.)

Beginning in 1804, Thomas assigned Bartholomew Brown, a Boston lawyer, musical scholar, and storekeeper (how’s that for a combination?) to write the 12 one-column “Farmer’s Calendar” essays for each edition. As with all his contributors, Thomas acknowledged Brown by his initials only, a custom not to be duplicated until my uncle (Robb Sagendorph) took over 140 years later.

Because Brown’s well-read columns continued until 3 or 4 years after his death in 1854 (like Thomas, he prepared his copy well ahead of deadlines), his “voice” in the Almanac—concentrating on rural life, nature, and plenty of advice—is an important element of these early editions. Here are a few samples from the “B.B.” columns:

  • Bleed working cattle to prevent their heating; give them potatoes and good hay. (1804)
  • He that gets drunk is first a madman, then an idiot. O, visit not the dram shop. (1806)
  • It is every man’s duty to make himself profitable to mankind; if he can, to many; if not, to fewer; if not so neither, to his neighbors; but always, however, to himself. (1807)

The type in the 1810 edition turned out to be even smaller and more compact than in the first few editions—about the size of the print at the bottom of today’s insurance policies. It’s amazing to think that this was once pleasurable reading matter. I can only surmise that our ancestors enjoyed outstanding eyesight.

To be continued in next month’s EXTRA magazine … 

Read last month’s article about the early Almanac in America.

Author: 

Judson D. Hale Sr., the Almanac’s editor in chief from 1971 to 2001 and a contributing editor for many years before and after that period.

Source: 

The Best of The Old Farmer’s Almanac

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