Thursday, October 12, 2023

On This Day in the Old West: October 13

 October 13, 1792 marks the beginning of an American institution: The Old Farmer’s Almanac. The periodical’s first editor, Robert B. Thomas, published the very first edition on this date in 1792, during George Washington’s first term as US President. Although many other almanacs were being published at that time, Thomas’ The Old Farmer’s Almanac became an instant success. It cost only 6 pence (about 9 cents), and by the second year, circulation had tripled (from 3,000 to 9.000). Published every year since, it is now the oldest continually published periodical in the United States.


An almanac, by definition, records and predicts astronomical events (like sunrise/sunset), tides, weather, and other phenomena with respect to time. So what made The Old Farmer’s Almanac so different? Since Thomas’ format wasn’t all that original, we can only surmise that his astronomical and weather predictions were more accurate, the advice more useful, and the features more entertaining. 


Thomas used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a secret weather forecasting formula, still in use today, which brought amazingly accurate results, said to be as much as 80 percent accurate. His last edition, in 1846, was not that much different from his first, over 50 years earlier. However, in those 50 years, Thomas established The Old Farmer’s Almanac as America’s leading periodical by outselling and outlasting the competition. Thomas died at the age of 80, supposedly reading page proofs for the 1847 edition of the almanac.


Every September, The Old Farmer’s Almanac publishes weather forecasts, planting charts, astronomical data, recipes, and articles. Topics include gardening, sports, astronomy, folklore, and predictions on trends in fashion, food, home, technology, and living for the coming year. Few people, other than the Almanac’sprognosticators, have ever seen Thomas’ secret formula for predicting the weather. It is kept in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.


The publication was not always “Old,” however. At first, it was simply known as The Farmer’s Almanac. However, in 1832, with his publication having survived longer than similarly-named competitors, Thomas inserted the word “Old” in the title, later dropping it from the title of the 1836 edition. After his death in 1846, John Henry Jenks was appointed editor, and, in 1848, changed the title of the book permanently and officially to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. In 1851, Jenks made another change to the Almanac when he featured a “four seasons” drawing on the cover by Boston artist Hammatt Billings, engraved by Henry Nichols. Jenks dropped the new cover for three years, but then reinstated it permanently in 1855. This trademarked desing is still in use today.


An interesting anecdote has lawyer Abraham Lincoln using The Old Farmer’s Almanac to free his client from murder charges in 1858. William “Duff” Armstrong was on trial for murder in Beardstown, Illinois. Lincoln used an almanac, supposedly The Old Farmer’s Almanac, to refute the testimony of Charles Allen, an eyewitness who claimed he had seen the crime by the light of the moon. The book stated that not only was the Moon in the first quarter, but it was riding “low” on the horizon, about to set. There was no way Allen could have seen Lincoln’s client.


With The Old Farmer’s Almanac in continuous publication since 1792, any of your characters could have read this periodical, depended on its forecasts, or just noted its articles. You could even use the information contained in this post to date the exact cover and title your character would have seen. Robert B. Thomas’ creation has withstood the test of time.


J.E.S. Hays

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