Almanac. Encyclopedia of American Folklore

Annual compendium of calendar, weather, astronomical, astrological, and navigational charts eventually expanded to include miscellaneous entertainments and information on a broad range of topics. Almanacs as we recognize them evolved in the late Middle Ages in order to provide useful charts and information about the movements of celestial bodies and the tides. By the 16th and 17th centuries, astrology and belief in the ability to prognosticate weather based on the movements of the heavenly bodies received wide acceptance among the educated, and charts reflecting both became staples in most almanacs. The first book printed in colonial America was an almanac, written by Captain William Pierce and published by Stephen Daye in 1639, at Cambridge, Massachusetts. By the end of the century, the number and variety of almanacs published by colonial presses increased dramatically up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Driven by fierce competition, 18th-century printers broadened what they included in their almanacs and made outrageous claims about the superiority of their almanacs over all others. The Man of Signs showing the impact of the celestial bodies on the vital organs of human beings became standard in 18th-century almanacs. James Franklin and Nathaniel Ames, two Boston printers, added snippets of news events and short moralizing essays. James’ brother Benjamin Franklin, using the pseudonym Richard Saunders, edited from 1732 to 1758 Poor Richard’s Almanac, perhaps one of the best-known American almanacs. It was packed with proverbs—some of his own coining, but most drawn from other sources—practical recommendations for farmers and domestics, and detailed descriptions of American customs and traditions. Gradually, printers incorporated popular jests and current comic anecdotes into their almanacs. Immigrants, women, lawyers, and politicians were common targets. Medical formulas for curing beasts and humans became usual features, while other publishers added thrilling tales of frontier explorations, Indian captivities, and eyewitness accounts of marvelous events and strange occurrences. Homespun poetry, humorous and tragic anecdotes, popular legends and ballads, political speeches, notable quotations, patriotic essays, and cracker-barrel philosophy found their way into almanacs, alongside the weather predictions, schedules of the tides, and astrological charts. Almanac publishers also targeted particular audiences. The almanacs directed at farmers were very successful, and one of them, the Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, endures today. Although much has been added to it, it retains many of the features of the earliest almanacs, including astrological charts, weather predictions, proverbs, and jests. Other shorter-lived, special-interest almanacs, including the Lady’s Almanac, the Temperance Almanac, the New England Anti-Masonic Almanac, and those devoted to various religious and political causes, such as the Christian Almanac and the Whig Almanac, appeared and disappeared almost yearly. Virtually every state had its own almanac.

One of the more notable specialized almanacs featured Davy Crockett. Appearing first in 1835, two years after the publication of Crockett’s Life, and continuing until 1856, its various authors packed the series with tall tales and graphic illustrations about the incredible adventures of the real and a fictitious Crockett. This almanac played a

significant role in transforming this backwoodsman, politician, and soldier of fortune into
a culture hero.
By the 19th century, almanacs had become important conduits of popular culture and
cheap literature. But late in the century, publishers began calling books of facts almanacs.
Addressed to urbanites, these publications dropped the astrological and navigational
information and ceased publishing material drawn from folklore and popular culture. In
their place, publishers provided statistical information about business and industry, news
summaries of major national and international news events, and factual data about
government, entertainment, and sports.
At the end of the 20th century, only a few of the earlier kind of almanacs exist,
maintaining a publishing tradition that saw its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries when
almanacs captured in print current popular culture and folk traditions.
Richard Sweterlitsch
Dodge, Robert K. 1987. Early American Almanac Humor. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green
State University Popular Press.
Dorson, Richard M., ed. [1939] 1977. Davy Crockett: American Comic Legend. Westport, CT:
Kittredge, George Lyman. 1904. The Old Farmer and His Almanack. Boston: William Ware.
Sagendorph, Robb. 1970. America and Her Alamanacs. Dublin, NH: Yankee; Boston: Little,
Stowell, Marion Barber. 1977. Early American Almanacs: The Colonial Weekly Bible. New York:
Burt Franklin.
See also Franklin, Benjamin; Weatherlore