New Englanders have always had the Bible for directions on how to get to heaven. Since 1792, they’ve had The Old Farmer’s Almanac for directions on everything else.
The Almanac on its hundredth anniversary advised farmers to plow up the old strawberry bed and plant sweet German rutabagas in July. Household tips ranged from advice on music in the household (it should comfort each member) to destroying red ants. The secret: Dip a sponge in hot lard and place it on the shelf where they appear.
Abraham Lincoln may have used the 1858 edition to get a “not guilty” verdict for his client. The story goes that young Abe Lincoln defended William “Duff” Armstrong, accused of murder in Illinois. An eyewitness claimed he’d seen the murder by moonlight. Lincoln read from the almanac that the moon was in the first quarter and about to set on the horizon when the murder took place.
Old Farmer’s Almanac
Lincoln may not have used The Old Farmer’s Almanac because other almanacs existed at the time. The first almanac in America was printed in 1639 in Cambridge, Mass., and others followed. Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanac in Philadelphia. And Franklin’s sister-in-law, Ann Smith Franklin, published Rhode Island Almanac by Poor Robin in Newport, R.I.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac outlasted them all.
Thomas Starts the Old Farmer’s Almanac
Robert Bailey Thomas started the Farmer’s Almanac on Oct. 13, 1792, something he’d wanted to do for a long time.
He was born April 24, 1766 in Grafton, Mass., the oldest son of Azubah Goodale and Robert Thomas, a farmer. Robert helped out with farm chores and attended the district school. His father had a large library that included Robert’s favorite book, Astronomy by James Ferguson.
From the age of 20 until 26, Robert Bailey Thomas taught nine different Massachusetts schools in Princeton, Sterling and Boylston. In his spare time, Thomas taught himself the bookbinder’s trade by mending his father’s books. He then bought textbooks in sheets and bound them and sold them to nearby storekeepers and schoolmasters.
He then went to Boston in 1792 and studied under Osgood Carleton, an almanac author. Thomas researched solar activity, weather patterns and astronomical cycles to come up with a secret forecasting formula still in use. The formula is kept in a black tin box in the almanac’s current offices in Dublin, N.H.
Robert Thomas’s upstart almanac was an instant hit, selling 9,000 copies of the 1794 edition, its second year. It was ‘fitted to the town of Boston’ but would ‘serve for any of the adjoining states’ with ‘new, useful and entertaining matter.’
Don’t Rush Into A Lawsuit
Thomas edited the Old Farmer’s Almanac for 54 years until his death on May 19, 1846. Over time he made changes. For example, he drilling a hole in it so people could hang it from a nail. He also added “Old” to the title.
The almanac included tide tables, weather predictions, schedules for colleges and Friends (Quaker) meetings. It gave carriage fares in Boston, postal regulations and advice. For example, along with the dates the courts would open in six states, it offered a morsel about lawsuits.
If your neighbor’s hens or hogs or cattle have trespassed on your crops, and you can get no satisfaction, don’t rush into a lawsuit about it; think it over carefully … The best lawyers advise clients to settle contentions out of court, sometimes even to buy a peace rather than to undergo the cost and worry of a contest.
In 1815, The Old Farmer’s Almanac inadvertently predicted the weather correctly. A printer’s mistake included a prediction of winter weather for July. The next year, 1816, was known as the Year Without a Summer. It had heavy snowfall in June and a hard frost during every month of the year.
The Almanac once conducted an experiment comparing Cincinnati flour to Alabama flour to see which made the bigger loaf of bread. Alabama won.
The centennial edition began 1892 year with the admonition “to decide if John or James, or both, shall be sent to the Agricultural College.” It also advised “Get Up early enough in the morning to give all the cattle a good carding.”
Then in October, the almanac warned the farmer not to permit his boys or hired men to shake off good winter apples. They should pick them off and handle them as carefully as if they were eggs, the almanac advised.
In 1794, the Farmer’s Almanac advised the farmer to catch up with his reading in the winter. His farm, the almanac noted, afforded him all the “comforts and necessities of life,” with his barns, granaries and cellars “all well filled by his own industry and frugality.” The farm then enables him “to spend the long and tedious winter evenings with his family round a good fire and a clean hearth.” There he may read theology, geography and history “to edify and entertain them.”
Robert Thomas advised his readers to call upon their debtors for settlement in order to balance their books before the new year. And he recommended The life of Dr. Franklin, “for the amusement of winter evenings.”
Today, The Old Farmer’s Almanac reigns as the oldest continuously published periodical in North America.
This story was updated in 2021. Image of Old Farmer’s Almanac CC BY-SA 4.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48736804.