Last Year’s Almanacs May Not Be Useful, but They Sure Are Collectible
The “Tribune Almanac of 1859,” published by H. Greeley co. New York, contains 80 pages of info and advertisements.
It used to be said of something no longer of use that it was “as useless as last year’s almanac.” But not any longer. Old almanacs are both valuable and interesting, and lately have become the object of much collector attention.
It is easy to understand why.
Reading backwards through a collection of them is a trip into the past. Almanacs have recorded American history ever since the first one was published more than 300 years ago. But, more so, they are a peek at our ancestors and at a way of life long gone.
For countless centuries, almanacs of all types, shapes and sizes have been an important part of daily life. Even today, many people swear by their uncannily accurate weather forecasts. Each year a dozen or so different ones hit the magazine racks in stores and shops across America.
The veritable perennial is “The Old Farmers Almanac.” Published annually since 1793, it has never missed a year. The same cover picturing Robert B. Thomas, founder and first editor, and Benjamin Franklin, has been in use for more than a century.
Almost as old as our country, the popularity and use of almanacs quickly spread across America. The first came out in 1639. Since then hundreds of different titles have been published; all eagerly awaited by farm families and city dwellers alike.
During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, travelers, settlers and businessmen carried almanacs with them as the frontier was steadily pushed westward. Throughout the 1800s, New England whaler and Yankee clipper-ship sailors brought them into every port of call.
Webster’s Calendar of the Albany Almanac” for 1866.
The New England Almanac and Farmer’s Friend” for 1869.
The New England Almanac and Farmer’s Friend” for 1875.
Basically, an almanac is a calendar containing weather forecasts, farming aids and a wide variety of useful astronomical information. There are also lists of holidays, phases of the moon and planets, and a table of tides.
For most people living before 1900, almanacs provided practical knowledge not readily available anywhere else. They offered medical care information, household hints, farming and planting data, as well as pages on such diverse matters as the law, spelling, math, history and child raising. For fun, the booklets also contained lots of puzzles, witticisms, homilies and jokes.
Also included were useful pieces of information, such as postal rates and regulations, railroad and stagecoach schedules, and listing of weights and measures. Quaint illustrations of farm scenes, especially with a four-season theme, often decorated pages.
The unfolded cover of the “Farmer’s Pocket Notebook/Almanac,” distributed by H.J.Baker & Bro, Fertilizer dealer 1867.
Since they were published for a mass market, the paper stock was of the cheapest grade. This, plus the fact that almanacs, along with the Bible, were the most referred to of all books in the household, helps to explain why the ones you might find in the attic leftover from great-grandmother’s day are likely to show much wear and tear.
The earliest almanac type of publications were first used 2,000 to 3,000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians; and later by the Greeks and Romans. During the medieval era, the almanac was the most widely used book, after the Bible.
The first almanac printed in this country was produced by William Pierce Marener in 1639. Nearly a century later, in 1728, James Franklin printed “The Rhode Island Almanac.” This was followed by “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” published by his brother, Benjamin, in 1732. The most famous of all American almanacs, “Poor Richard’s Almanac” lasted for more than a quarter of a century and earned itself a place in history as one of our favorite legends.
The scientific almanac, a variation with information valuable to merchant seamen and farmers, came to America in the early 1800s. This style was based on science rather than astrology or alchemy, as were most almanacs of the day. With it, farmers planned their lives and farming activities, including plantings and harvests.
The 19th century experienced an explosion in the number of almanacs available, including many advertising and regional styles.
1931 “Farmer’s Almanac” published by Armour Fertilizer Works, Chicago. Almanacs adopted science over astrology, as this example encouraged farmers to “Hitch Science To Your Plow.” It has a page of the fertilizer tonnage by years starting in 1880, Morning and Evening Stars, 1931, Ember Days for 1931, cartoons, etc.
The advertising pamphlet, extensively used by patent medicine manufacturers and sellers, was usually given away free of charge—an unparalleled attraction. Actually, many cannot be called true almanacs, since they were often little more than just a calendar and a joke book put together.
But some evolved into classics, like “Ayer’s American Almanac,” published by Dr. J. C. Ayer and Company for decades beginning in the late 1800s. The Ayer booklets, besides detailing the many ailments and afflictions that the company’s Sarsaparilla would cure, also had humor, monthly calendars, and farming helps. Other favorites were “Dr. Miles Almanac and Hand Book of Valuable Information,” an advertising promotion of the Miles Medical Company, and the “Swamp-Root Dream Book Almanac,” put out by Dr. Kilmer & Co. (Binghampton, New York). Both were distributed in the late 19th century and into the early years of the 20th.
From 1860 to the turn of the century and, in many cases, some years beyond, large numbers of regional or city almanacs were issued. Most always the product of a local company, they were usually centralized around a large urban area (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc.). A good example was “Beckwith’s,” which covered New Haven, Conn., from 1847 to the 1920s. Such almanacs also circulated for a county or similar area. Often the publishing of them was done by generations of the same family down through the years.
Such treasures contained local history, often a list of births and passings, last year’s disasters, forthcoming social events, current political and business leaders, and lots of helpful information such as trolley schedules and locations of schools and government offices. Chock-full of advertisements in some of them illustrated with line drawings – by businesses and providers of all sorts of services, regional almanacs are a gold mine of data for dedicated hometown historians.
In looking over old almanacs, you read about the conjunction of the planets, the best time to graft fruit trees, the phases of the sun’s declination, when to plant potatoes, and when to bring in the pumpkins before the frost gets them. Of course, it always helped to know what the weather was likely to be when planning a sleigh ride over to grandma’s house for Christmas.
An almanac is a look forward. When the year is over and done with, the same almanac acts as a mind-jogger of what happened in the past. They also make great collectibles.
— Roy Nuhn
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