Bringing in the New Year with Almanacs
It is easy to prove that no book we read (except the Bible) is so much valued, and so serviceable to the community. Almanacks serve as clocks and watches for nine-tenths of mankind.
~Dr. Nathaniel Low, essay ON ALMANACKS in An Astronomical Diary; or Almanack for 1786
Echoing Dr. Low’s sentiments more than two centuries later, retired cataloger Richard Anders explained the significance of almanacs on the American Antiquarian Society’s website:
“The almanac has been called the one universal book of modern literature. In early America it was the most abundant and most indispensable of all publications, a necessity to farmers, navigators, householders, townspeople, the gentry, the professional class, and even to scholars. The almanac had an essential place in homes where no other form of literature entered and where, often, not even the Bible and the newspaper were found.”
While the etymology of the word “almanac” is uncertain, it is known that almanacs have a lengthy history dating back to ancient civilizations. Europeans brought the genre to the North American colonies; in fact, with the exception of a broadside published the previous year, An Almanac for New England for the year 1639 – compiled by William Pierce of Harvard College and printed by Stephen Daye – is the first known work printed in the British colonies.
The DRT Library has about a dozen almanacs dating from approximately 1835 until 1860, including:
- American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for 1838, 1843, and 1857
- Davy Crockett’s Almanac for 1839, 1840, and 1847
- Methodist Almanac for 1856
- The New Orleans Almanac for 1858
- The Old Rough and Ready Almanac for 1849
- Webster’s Calendar: Or, The Albany Almanack for 1840
- The Whig Almanac and United States Register for 1846-1848, and 1851
With the exception of the bound, book-length American Almanac, the volumes in the DRT collections are pamphlets containing approximately thirty to sixty pages.
These materials demonstrate the variety of almanacs published in the nineteenth century, as readers could choose, for example, from those published in towns throughout the country or by various political parties or religious groups. The DRT volumes also illustrate the breadth of information included in nineteenth-century almanacs. Richard Anders has summarized their content, asserting “if the almanac had a comprehensive subject, it was: How to get through life.” Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary describes an almanac as “an annual table, or (more usually) a book of tables, containing a calendar of months and days, with astronomical data and calculations, ecclesiastical and other anniversaries, besides other useful information, and, in former days, astrological and astrometeorological forecasts.” While all of the almanacs in the DRT collection contain this type of information, they also contain substantial information about federal and state governments such as laws, election results, lists of elected officials, and budgets and financial circumstances. Additionally, some of the almanacs also include works of fiction and poetry; home remedies; lists and statistics; advertisements; and illustrations. Some even contain essays describing or offering opinions about events of the day such as tariffs, the Mexican War, the annexation of Texas, and the Oregon boundary controversy.