Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Almanacs

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Almanacs

Cover, The North-American Calendar, 1787.

Proto-Wikipedia for the Colonial set.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. IV, pages 60-63, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1944. Transcribed by Christopher Martin.

SOMETIME in January, in the days of our great and great-great grandparents, an annual event would take place in most households—the putting aside of the old, and the installation of the new, family almanac. Actually this was an important procedure, inasmuch as the almanac was once as much a fixture of the average home, as were the well, Bible and cat. A new almanac hanging on the old familiar hook in the kitchen, or above the mantel in the living room, meant that a new year was well launched upon its way, that months and weeks would come and go, tides ebb and flow, moons rise and suns set, according to schedule. Often it was a misdemeanor of unpardonable severity to disturb the useful compendium of handy knowledge and general information, unless special parental consent were granted. In many a home, failure to return the almanac to its customary place, after use, was infinitely worse than neglecting to rub down the horse, or to leave the buck-saw out in the rain.

For at least half the span of American history, almanacs were important to domestic routine. The information they contained was important in respect to the average means of earning a livelihood. Farmers planted their crops, planned their harvests, did their haying, and scheduled many another agricultural activity according to the prognostications and astronomical projections contained in the not always accurate paper books that boldly anticipated the future. Sailors did their reckoning, shipowners planned voyages, fishermen went out or remained in port, and parsons set the day for the annual Sunday School picnic, according to what the almanac had to say. Doubtless too, many a traveler studied the storm warnings and the fair weather prophecies before purchasing passage on a coastwise packet, or on the Providence to New York stage that accommodated both passengers and baggage. Besides, the old almanacs provided a source of literary entertainment in the days when newspapers were scarce, books expensive, and when the reading matter was limited to the Scriptures, a Psalm book, and perhaps a primer. Once upon a time it was mighty interesting to learn when the moon would be full two months hence, on what day Easter would fall a year away, or to know the true apparent places of thirty-seven of the principal fixed stars for every tenth day of the year. It was also enlightening to know the exact hour for the autumnal equinox, the meaning of the signs of the zodiac, and how to remove ink stains. Who was the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Brazil? When would plum trees be expected to flower in Savannah, Georgia? Who was the government agent for the Choctaws, or the Creeks? What about a good clam tide at Field's Point? The almanac had the answers, and, as time went on, wider and wider fields of human knowledge were covered by the editors of these indispensable sources of facts, and of fancies too, since the early almanacs were distinguished by homely philosophical observations, witty sayings, and practical advice, as well as by their scientific and prophetic information.

As a matter of fact, an almanac was the first book printed in the English colonies. Calculated for the meridian of Massachusetts by William Pierce, master of the Mayflower [not the Pilgrim ship], it was printed at Cambridge by Stephen Daye, in 1639, from the type and on a hand press donated to Harvard College. The first almanac published in Rhode Island was the product of the press of James Franklin, elder brother of Benjamin, and the pioneer issue appeared in Newport, in the year 1728.

Its title was "The Rhode Island Almanack, for the year, 1728, Being bissextile or Leap Year Carefully fitted and exactly calculated to the meridian of Newport, on Rhode Island, whose latitude North... by Poor Robin (Franklin's pseudonym) printed and sold by J. Franklin at his Printing-house on Tillinghast's Wharf near the Union Flag Tavern." The first almanac in Rhode Island was a sixteen-page book, twelve of the pages being devoted to monthly calendars, with the usual information concerning moon phases, tides, church holidays and weather forecasts. Poor Robin was generous with his interpretations of weather signs, although he rarely got down to brass tacks in regard to the particular brand of weather which might be expected on a certain date. For example, he prophesied for late January, 1728, "some falling weather and raw cold," and, earlier in the calendar for the same month he observed, "If our prediction you may trust, this month you'll have but little dust." That was safe enough for January in Rhode Island. Among some of Poor Robin's "prognosticks of the weather," as he referred to them, can be found, "If rain water be drank or sucked up the earth sooner than ordinary, it signifieth Rain to be at hand." "If ducks or drakes do shake and flutter their wings when they rise, it is a sign of ensuing water." "If sheep do bleat, play or skip wantonly, it is a sign of wet weather." "When the Fire sends forth its flames waving, or that it sparkle more than ordinary, it is a sign of windy weather."

Drawing of the village of Providence, circa 1762.
The Village of Providence in 1762 looking southwest towards Weybosset Bridge from Gaol Lane (Meeting St.). From a sketch in possession of the Hope Club, drawn by Henry A. Barker as a design for scenery in the production of "In Colony Times" a celebration play given as a part of the Brown Sesquicentennial, 1914. (The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. IV, 1944).

Elsewhere in this volume it tells of William Goddard who came to Providence and began the publication of the Providence Gazette. Living in Providence at the time was a man of genius by the name of Benjamin West. Mr. West conceived the idea of publishing an almanac, made the necessary calculations and induced William Goddard to publish his material. It was for the year 1763, and was called: "An Almanac for the year of our Lord... by Benjamin West, Philomath." In the introduction, the author remarked, "that at a time when the extreme want of money seems to be the universal complaint, it ought to be the endeavor of everybody to keep as much of it in the colony as possible. Hitherto, large sums have annually been sent into other colonies to supply the necessity for almanacs; to prevent this evil, and the hope of private gain was the object of the present effort." He went on to say in words to the effect that this was his first performance of the kind, and that he hoped that sufficient encouragement would be given him to warrant further efforts. In 1764, with the issue of his second number, Mr. West, possibly with a view to more extended circulation, changed the title to "The New England Almanack," and, in 1765, he added: "Ladies and Gentlemen's Diary." The name remained unchanged until after 1780.

Within the pages of the pioneer Providence almanac can be found quotations and extracts from the English poets plentifully scattered through its pages, while moral observations, maxims and proverbs are wormed in among weather forecasts, sessions of courts and aspects of the planets. Such quaint sayings as the following gave our ancestors something to think about after they had read, and often memorized, the calendar for the coming month: "He most surely hits the white, who mingles profit with delight,"—"Choose a companion for his good behavior rather than for his purse," "Men complain that money is scarce—what then? The times are bad and so are men," —"Beauty consists more in good actions than in colour,"—"The usurer is the greatest Sabbath breaker because his plough goeth every Sunday."

Prophecies concerning the coming weather, or, "weather judgement," as Mr. West called them, were an important part of the almanac publishers' business in those days. There is a charming vagueness about what might be looked for in January 1763. According to the almanac, Providence folks were informed that they might expect pleasant weather early in the month, and that, "on the 7th the weather might be cold and look like rain;—on the 15th look for a northerly storm about this time;—the 20th and 21st were to be pretty good weather for the season, but the 22nd might be expected to be wet,—on the 28th, unpleasant wet falling weather." Besides the weather helps, another important use which early almanacs supplied was that of road information. Beginning with 1763, a list of all main roads leading from Providence to each large city or town in any direction was given, together with the distances from point to point. Until and including the year 1781, the name of the tavern-keeper in each town was also listed.

Glancing here and there among the well-seasoned pages of the many issues of almanacs which the Rhode Island Historical Society has preserved, it is noted that John Anderson's "improved" almanac published in Newport for the year 1773, featured a "Receipt to kill Lice." Incidentally, Editor Anderson recommended "the Bark of Sassafras, reduced to powder and rubbed among the Hair of a child, will, in one night's time, destroy all the lice, if the hair be tied up with a handkerchief to prevent the powder falling out." On the same page, an excellent method for raising potatoes was outlined in detail. Abraham Weatherwise, in his "New England Town and Country Almanack," printed in Providence for the year 1769, described a remarkable cure for cancer; told what to do for a foundered horse; reported a practise among Finlanders whereby persons and animals were revived after they had been drowned many hours, and, sometimes, many days. Job Sheperd in his Newport almanac featured a touching poem entitled: "Contentment," which he inserted, "for the amusment of some readers and also to fill the page." Back again to Poor Robin, it is revealed that his thought for a month two centuries ago happened to be: "The Best Physick in this month is warm Cloaths, good Fires and a merry honest Wife. But beware of counterfeits."

Since the year 1728, Rhode Islanders have always had almanacs, some published locally, others elsewhere. At this writing, the Providence Journal Almanac carries on where the older and much smaller and simpler publications left off. Therefore, if one cares to know when Sirius sets in June, the name of the President of the Rhode Island Bar Association, the population of Woonsocket, or the wave length of radio station WJAR, January is the time to purchase a Journal Almanac, ready to be dangled on the old familiar hook in the kitchen where young and old may take it down to read and learn, as did our well-informed ancestors long before the days of free libraries and compulsory education.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

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Editor's Notes
William Pierce (c1595-1641): From "Thirty-one generations, a thousand years of Percy and Pierce" by B.L. Colby: " Although it was not until her second voyage that he was captain of the famed Mayflower, Capt. William had more than his share of 'firsts.' He brought the first cattle to New England from England (ship Charity, 1624). He brought from the West Indies to New England the first cotton (1633) and the first sweet potatoes (ship Desire in 1636). He published the first bound book in English to be printed in North America—Pierce's (Peirse's) Almanac of 1639 calculated for New England and printed by Stephen Day, 'an exceedingly illiterate printer,' on a press brought to Boston in 1638 by the Rev. Mr. Glover, English clergyman."

Tillinghast's Wharf near the Union Flag Tavern: According to Bert Lippincott, Reference Librarian at the Newport Historical Society, James Franklin's print shop " was located 'above the school house' and 'on the parade.' Both locations are modern day Washington Square. The original building no longer exists."

John Anderson: Howard M. Chapin in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (1915) postulates that this was a pseudonym for Newport publisher Solomon Southwick.

Abraham Weatherwise: Another pseudonym, one used by various New England printers during the later 1700s. In 1769 it was used by Sarah Goddard and John Carter, Benjamin West's Providence printers. Because of a disagreement among the parties, West had his almanac published in Boston that year, and Goddard and Carter came out with their own.

Job Sheperd: Pseudonym for James Franklin.

The Providence Journal Almanac was published yearly from 1887 to 1997. Its 111-year run was likely ended by the rise of the Internet.

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