By Benjamin Wardhaugh
As well as Halloween, Guy Fawkes, and All Saints’s day, this time of the year used to see another day of fun and frenzy. ‘Almanac Day’, towards the end of November, saw the next year’s almanacs go on sale. It generally came round on or about 22 November: St Cecilia’s Day. In London, Stationers’ Hall would be crammed to the rafters:
The clock strikes, wide asunder start the gates, and in they come, a whole army of porters, darting hither and thither, and seizing the said bags, in many instances as big as themselves. Before we can well understand what is the matter, men and bags have alike vanished – the hall is clear … they will be dispersed through every city and town, and parish, and hamlet of England; the curate will be glancing over the pages of his little book to see what promotions have taken place in the church, and sigh as he thinks of rectories, and deaneries, and bishoprics; the sailor will be deep in the mysteries of tides and new moons that are learnedly expatiated upon in the pages of his; the believer in the stars will be finding new draughts made upon that Bank of Faith impossible to be broken or made bankrupt — his superstition, as he turns over the pages of his Moore — but we have let out our secret. Yes, they are all almanacks — those bags contained nothing but almanacks.
Two hundred or three hundred years ago you could choose from twenty or more almanacs every year. Unlike most of the modern ones they were slim things, with a couple of dozen pages. There were almanacs for Whigs, almanacs for Tories, almanacs for people who believed in astrology and almanacs for those who didn’t, almanacs for farmers, sailors, merchants.
My own journey into the wonderful world of early modern almanacs began with Poor Robin’s Almanac. Robin was a fictional character, invented in the 1660s as a way to lampoon astrologers and their almanacs. He went on to write a long-running spoof almanac, clocking up 164 annual issues. He did prognostication –
If on the second of February, thou go either to Fair or Market with store of money in thy pocket, and there have thy purse picked of it all, then that is an unfortunate day.
and history —
1367 BC: Women first invented kissing
and the year’s calendar —
23 June: Friar Tuck’s Day.
Poor Robin’s intellectual descendants included Punch (it copied part of his title page) and Poor Richard, pseudonym of Benjamin Franklin and author of The Way to Wealth. In his day he was loved and very widely read, but he was killed off in the 1820s by a combination of mismanagement, waning popularity, and attacks from the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.
Others were less uproarious, but just as much fun. The Ladies’ Diary, or Woman’s Almanack specialized in genteel mathematical puzzles. ‘If I’m a year younger than one-twentieth the square of my age, how old am I?’ ‘If the sun takes four minutes to cross the horizon on New Year’s Day’, where am I? It attracted questions and answers sent in from all over Britain, and gave prizes for the best ones. It ran for over 130 years.
Old Moore provided predictions political, social, and meteorological based on the movements of the heavens.
Let my Muse raise, and tell what News she hears
Amongst the Stars, and Motions of the Spheres.
But it combined them with some remarkable popular science writing, on subjects ranging from astronomy to ancient history, compiled by authors who had one eye on the Philosophical Transactions and the other on the public’s taste for sensationalism.
Another scientifically-minded production was the Nautical Almanac, started in the 1760s by Longitude’s villain Nevile Maskelyne (he was actually rather a pleasant chap). It gave the moon’s position at three-hour intervals for the whole year, and instructions for working out your longitude from an observation. At two shillings and sixpence, plus the price of a sextant, it came in a good bit cheaper than a Harrison chronometer.
At times nearly one Briton in six was buying an almanac: ‘the greatest triumph of journalism until modern times’ according to historian Bernard Capp. Almanac day may be no more, but almanacs have been circulating for nearly as long as calendars, and if the genre has waxed and waned over the years it seems in no danger of extinction. Partly eclipsed in the early nineteenth century by other forms of popular instruction, the almanac blazed forth again from the 1830s, with sales rising to a million a year for the most popular. Today, Old Moore is still with us, though somewhat transformed; so is the Nautical Almanac. Whitaker and Schott have given almanacs a new lease of life as annual reference books. Their survival seems a safe prediction.
Benjamin Wardhaugh is a historian and fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. His book, Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A curious Almanac, and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain, publishes this month.
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