Friday, October 15, 2010

Almanacks

   Most of us are familiar with Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack and most are perhaps familiar with the fact that it was a major source of his wealth and was one of the reasons that he was able to retire from the printing business at the age of 46 with sufficient wealth to pursue his many other interests. It is believed that Poor Richard sold as many as 12,000 copies per year. Almanacs were big business in colonial America and there were differences in the different regions as to their content.
 
   In an era when books were imported from Britain and Scotland in huge quantities and many printers relied on government contracts, subsidized religious sermons, or political essays for their income, the almanac was one of the few local publications in colonial North America produced regularly and solely for market. Indeed, the nature of the almanac's content made it so. At its core, every almanac was a utilitarian text that conveyed such useful information as tidal predictions, lunar calculations, court and market days, and distances between towns. Because the almanac contained such a variety of information, its utility extended to almost everyone: a captain needed to know the tides; a farmer needed to know the rising and setting of the sun; a merchant needed to know market days; a lawyer needed to know when courts met. At the same time, this information was geographically specific: a farmer in Massachusetts needed to know the rising and setting of the sun in Boston, not Philadelphia or London; a circuit lawyer in Philadelphia needed to know when courts were meeting in Pennsylvania and Delaware, not Connecticut and Rhode Island; and people bringing goods to market needed to know the market days in towns near them, not in distant colonies.
  
   The first almanac in the colonies was printed in Cambridge in 1639 and by the 1760s a Boston printer could make L50 per year from an almanac. It became an early habit in New England to preserve the almanacs from year to year, carefully stitching them together and to annotate them frequently with family records or events. They were sometimes referred to as the family's "weekly bible."
  
   Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack was published by Benjamin West, born on a farm outside of Taunton Massachusetts and a resident of Providence, R.I.. West was one of the most important publishers of almanacs, publishing one in Boston from 1768 through 1793 that became known as the New England Almanack and was published until 1814, one in Providence from 1763 through 1781, and one in New York for a time. He also published a number of other works. West also ran a drygoods store and later a bookshop as well as becoming the town postmaster. Although an autodidact, West was single handedly responsible for the results of two major astronomical efforts; the first in 1769 to observe the passage of Venus across the sun, and the second in 1786 to observe the eclipse of the sun. Although collaborative efforts, modern scholarship has conclusively attributed the results to West's efforts. He was most likely acquainted with Dr Church, but the extent of their relationship cannot be determined.

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  And just who is Bickerstaff?  Issac Bickerstaff was a pseudonym used by Johnathan Swift in a very famous popular hoax to predict the death of then then famous cobbler turned almanac maker and astrologer John Partridge. Swift, then employed by the Church of England, had taken offense at some attacks Partridge had made against his employer. Partridge had challenged his readers to see if they could outdo him in his prophetic abilities. Swift took up the challenge and predicted the exact day and time of Partridge's death. At the appointed time, Swift, using another name, confirmed that the prophecy had been fulfilled and Partridge was indeed dead. Partridge protested in his next almanac that he was alive but no one really believed him. And you can take it from there. This hoax became notorious all over the English speaking world and Benjamin Franklin created the "Poor Richard" (Richard Saunders) character after Issac Bickerstaff.

 * This is the front cover of the 1768 and first edition of Bickerstaff's Almanac. The cover features an "elegant plate of the giants lately discovered in South America, representing a sailor 5' 111/2 " high giving a biscuit to one of their women." The cover also informs the reader that the almanack contains an exact figure of the eclipse of the sun on January 19th.

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