J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Almanac Oddities

Yesterday’s New York Times reported on the New-York Historical Society’s project to “to catalog its 5,700 American almanacs, one of the nation’s most comprehensive collections.”
For 18th-century American families, two kinds of books were considered indispensable: Bibles and yearly almanacs.

Yet in the almanacs, the routine daily weather predictions were practically afterthoughts; essays, data charts, cartoons and advertisements dominated the pages. Each almanac also had an editorial viewpoint and mood, depending on the publisher’s personality and local market trends. . . .

A 1713 almanac from Rhode Island provides puzzling weather predictions like “suspicious.” . . .

Handwritten notes also appear in the historical society’s collection. After the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, a New Yorker predicts that “rivers of blood will flow.”
The N.Y.H.S. collection includes several almanacs not known to survive anywhere else.

As for the weather predictions in almanacs, those always struck me as problematic. Only within the past few years have we expected meteorologists to be able to forecast the next week’s weather with any accuracy. It’s hard to believe, therefore, that farmers actually expected almanac makers to describe the weather more than twelve months in advance.

On the other hand, the phases of the Moon, sunrise and sunset times, and high and low tides were eminently calculable for eighteenth-century scholars like Dr. Nathaniel Ames (whose work is shown above). And that information was useful for farmers, mariners, and many others. I think those were the parts of an almanac that buyers relied on. This article from Common-place describes the form.

Of course, all the almanacs written for a particular location would have had the same astronomical data. So the rest of the material was necessary to make one almanac stand out from the competition, or at least not fall behind. But I suspect smart almanac-maker promoted information that wasn’t so easy to test as weather predictions.

For 1773, for example, Boston schoolboy Joshua Green used an almanac that featured Israel Remmington, a boy “giant” from Hingham. The New England Historic Genealogical Society also owns the almanac Joshua’s father chose for that year, and it’s definitely less sensational.

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