A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of July 30-Aug. 2, 2014
THE OLD FARMER’S ALMANAC: VIRTUALLY UNCHANGED IN 222 YEARS
Nowadays when people need information on a certain subject, the tendency is to Google the inquiry or use an electronic application (app). The information obtained is as close as one’s computer or cell phone screen at the snap of the fingers. But what if certain types of information were grouped together into one hard-copy publication so that you can find a multitude of useful data all in one place?
Such is the unique and continuing appeal of the Old Farmer’s Almanac (OFA) which first went into publication in the year 1792, sixteen years after the signing of the USA Declaration of Independence. An “almanac,” according to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is “a publication containing astronomical and meteorological data for a given year, and often including a miscellany of other information.” The OFA, being such a reference book, contains highly practical information on many topics which are directed toward its primary intended audience: farmers, especially those in Dublin, New Hampshire, the city where OFA was founded. Hence, it was a compendium of organized facts like weather forecasts, planting charts, tide tables, astronomical data, recipes, and other useful articles in astronomy, gardening, sports, and farming. The Almanac has been in print without any yearly gap since 1792, thereby making it the oldest continuously published periodical in North America.The Old Farmer’s Almanac was founded, edited, and published by Robert B. Thomas of Massachusetts. From an initial distribution of 3,000 in the first year, circulation tripled to 9,000 in the following year, 1793. At that time, a copy of the book was sixpence or about four cents.
There were other competing almanacs during that time but the OFA enjoyed enduring success, surviving longer than similarly named contenders, thanks in the most part to Thomas’ being at the editorial helm for more than 50 years (1792-1846). In 1832, with his almanac having outlasted others of its kind, Thomas added the word “Old” in the title but he dropped the word four years later in 1836. When John Henry Jenks was appointed editor with Thomas’ passing, the book’s name was permanently and officially revised to “The Old Farmer’s Almanac.”
The editors-in-chief of the Almanac, are counted from the founder, Robert B. Thomas in 1792 up to the current, 13th, first and only female so far, Janice Stillman, who took the reins in 2000 and is still serving at present. With regard to the succession of editors throughout the centuries, it can be said that some regimes introduced significant changes to the look and content of the Almanac, while some were content to merely keep the operations afloat with no intention to change anything. If we go back to the “ruling period” of John Henry Jenks (he was the editor from 1847-1860), it was then that the word “Old” was inserted into the publication’s title. Another change that Jenks initiated was the inclusion of the photo-engraving titled “Four Seasons” as the main cover illustration. This artwork was by Boston artist Hammatt Billings, engraved by Henry Nichols. Jenks dropped this cover for three years and then reinstated it permanently in 1855. This trademarked design is still in use today.
In the year 1858, President Abraham Lincoln may have used the Moon tables of the OFA to help his client, William “Duff” Armstrong, get acquitted. Armstrong was on trial for murder in Beardstown, Illinois (Illinois Historic Preservation Society). Apparently, the testimony of one eyewitness, Charles Allen, stated that he saw the crime happen by the light of the moon on August 29, 1857 (University of Illinois Library). However, the OFA stated that not only was the Moon in the first quarter (just waxing, definitely not full), but that it was also riding “low” on the horizon and about to set. However, since the actual hard copy of the almanac used by Lincoln in that trial was not retained for posterity, there still exists a bit of a controversy as to which almanac was actually used. In 2007, a competing almanac, the “Farmer’s Almanac,” based in Lewiston, Maine, ran an article claiming that the almanac in contention may have been one of theirs. Roger Scaife, if one was to go along with the historians at Almanac.com themselves, is definitely the “worst” editor that the OFA ever had. He took the reins in 1936 and for the first time in the Almanac’s history, circulation was down from previous years and the book’s financial status was questioned. His term coincided with the only time in the history of the Almanac that it declined precipitously in circulation and financial stability. (The 1938 edition had a circulation of only 88,000, compared with 225,000 in 1863!) Scaife also committed the greatest of all Almanac blunders: He dropped the weather forecasts! In their place, he substituted temperature and precipitation averages. The public outcry was so great that he reinstated the forecasts in the next year’s edition, but it was too late to save his reputation.
Relevance in the 21st century
Knowledge, entertainment, and instruction can be found in the pages of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. In fact, when one examines the Almanac, one finds that the pages are “busy” or crowded with all sorts of information. This was how the founder, publisher, and first editor Robert B. Thomas implemented the look he wanted for the publication; hence it has become a tradition. In my opinion, it is this hewing to tradition that contributes to the relevance of the Almanac to our current time. The retention of the Almanac’s essential look and purpose actually contributes to its relevance in the 21st century because its subscribers long for “the good old days.” There is comfort in knowing that some things will never change if those in charge can help it, and as proof, four million subscribers and counting as of the early 1990s when the publication hit its 200th year cannot all be wrong.
Edward Parks, in his article for the Smithsonian Magazine, writes that “One subtle reason for the Almanac’s present success may be the site of its editorial offices.” It appears that Dublin, New Hampshire, lies close enough to Monadnock, a great big mountain, “a favorite of Emerson’s, Thoreau’s and thousands of other New Englanders.” Monadnock, with its majestic size, eternal presence, and seasonal changes in foliage, reminds the editorial staff of “the nearness of nature and all its rhythms.” This mountain serves as a daily inspiration to these New Englanders, whose work ethic and conscientiousness are legendary among the various regions of our country. In effect, Parks is saying that the editorial staff of the Almanac is being imbued with energy to churn out an edition year after year with the mighty Monadnock as backdrop and the circulation among loyal subscribers who think the same way about the cycles of nature.
There is an undeniable sense of timelessness when considering the appeal of the Almanac. With each edition, one holds a piece of living history in one’s hands. Surely, to a sizeable portion of the North American population, history and tradition count for values that should be cherished, maintained, and supported in whatever form it appears, even in print. And why not in print? With the OFA’s unbroken history of publication for 222 years now, with only minimal changes in formatting and content, and with the ongoing mystique of arcana like astronomical tables and weather predictions which approach “80% accuracy,” these are the powerful elements that attracted the circulation of 3,000 way back in 1792 and the continuing patronage of more than 4 million subscribers now. As a reference, the USA population as of the beginning of July 2014 is 318 million (www.census.gov), meaning that 1.26% of the population read the OFA. Is this the other 1% – the future farmers going back to the cycles of nature?
The OFA’s content usually spans astronomy, gardening, how-to, calendar, folklore, home remedies, recipes, fun facts, history, and weather forecast updates. We posed the question at the beginning about the continuing visceral appeal of having all sorts of information available as something tangible right in our hands, and we are approaching the answer to the continuing relevance of the Old Farmer’s Almanac in this day and age. This writer thinks that there is a part of us that is longing for a simple life with minimal intrusions from electronic devices. This writer would go as far as to say that when our generation hits the extreme of too much dependence on technology, then cultural trends will gradually swing back the other way: toward simplicity, face-to-face communication, eye-to-eye contact, and other rare flora and fauna of “archaic” communication. Books and magazines will be in vogue again and people will actually read from a hard-copy source again instead of from their cell phones or tablets. That is this writer’s attempt at a fearless forecast, much like the Almanac’s forecasting staff makes weather predictions every year.
Almanac.com/Magazine14. 2014. webpage. 27 July 2014.
David Guralnik, editor-in-chief. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Lamb, David. “”Almanac begins third century of know-and-tell”.” LA Times 1 February 1993: 5. print.
Library, University of Illinois. “Lincoln Room – Lincoln Collections .” n.d. 24 July 2014.
Parks, Edward. “”Weathering every season with one canny compendium”.” Smithsonian Magazine November 1992: 91-101. Print.
Rao, Joe. “A 100% guarantee and how we ‘may’ have helped a former US President.” Farmer’s Almanac 2007: 142-144. print.
Society, Illinois Historic Preservation. http://www.thelincolnlog.org. n.d. internet. 24 July 2014.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac. http://www.Almanac.com. 1996. internet. 24 July 2014.
Thomas, Robert B. “To our patrons”. Dublin, New Hampshire: Old Farmer’s Almanac, 1829. print.
White, Martha. “Farming by the moon”. 2014. internet.
http://www.Almanac.com. 2014. internet. 24 July 2014.
http://www.census.gov. 2014. internet. 27 July 2014.
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