When John Winthrop set foot on the shores of Salem in 1630, he carried with him an out-of-date almanac that had belonged to Adam Winthrop, his father.
Like many Englishmen, Adam Winthrop carried a pocket-sized almanac that included astronomical predictions. Some had blank pages inserted between the calendar pages, or interleaved, so the owner could record in it his expenses, debts, travel, the weather and important events.
Jany 12. Mr. Gurdon fel out of his coache in Boxforde Street.
March 1 We dined at Goodman Coles.
March 15. The assises at Burye, where Porter a minister was condemned for Sodomie.
July 31. Sir John Deane sent us venison.
Sept. 2. There was seene in ye skie a fearful sight.
Winthrop brought it as a keepsake, but it foretold the explosion of almanac publishing and diary-keeping in colonial New England. For centuries they were surefire bestsellers, serving as daily planners for New England colonists. By year’s end, nearly every New England household was ordering an almanac. Without one, the colonist was lost.
Second Only to the Bible
An almanac was the second publication to come off the first American printing press in Cambridge, Mass., in 1639 – nearly a century before Benjamin Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s in Philadelphia in 1731.
John Winthrop recorded daily events in his almanac, though even his descendant Robert Winthrop didn’t find them interesting. Winthrop’s son John, later governor of Connecticut, also kept the habit instilled in him by his grandfather, who had made hi
m an almanac to keep as a diary.
This day, May 10 in the afternoon, the Patent for Connecticut was sealed.
Returned to my own bed after my sickness of the Small Pox.
On March 16, 1679, he wrote,
Governour Leverett dieth.
On Jan 10, 1681:
Charles River frozen over, so to Nod[dles] island.
The Almanac Market
Nathaniel Ames began to corner the New England almanac market in 1726, five years before Poor Richard’s came off the printing press. Ames claimed he sold 60,000 annually in New England – six times as many as Franklin sold in Philadelphia. Ames wasn’t the only one who printed almanacs in New England, though. Franklin’s sister-in-law, Ann Smith Franklin, published Rhode Island Almanac by Poor Robin in Newport, R.I. The Old Farmer’s Almanac was a latecomer, as Robert Thomas didn’t start printing it until 1792.
George Washington recorded his activities on interleaved pages of the Virginia Almanac, as did Thomas Jefferson. On the top of every page, Washington wrote, “Where & how my time is Spent.”
Washington compulsively recorded the weather. On Dec. 31, 1774, Washington wrote,
Clear but pretty cool. Wind fresh from Northwest. (You can see Washington’s entire 1774 almanac here.)
An almanac typically had useful information for travel: lists of roads between New York and Boston, when the courts were in session, coach fares, lists of local officials, currency conversion tables and directions to inns.
Historian Molly McCarthy wrote that Washington recognized the almanac ‘as an indispensable calendar and local guide.’
More than many early newspapers, almanacs were a font of local information. They provided readers with the kind of facts needed to negotiate the geographic and commercial terrain of early America ... The almanac enjoyed a status in early America unparalleled by any book, except the Bible.
John Adams was an indefatigable diarist, but the narrow pages of almanacs weren’t enough for him. He recorded daily events on blank paper he had cut and stitched together.
John Quincy Adams kept a diary from the time he was 12 years old until shortly before he died in 1848. He often wrote a line a day diary in the interleaved pages of an almanac.
Such was the case in 1788, when he was studying law in Newburyport, Mass., with Theophilus Parsons.
On New Year’s Day that year he wrote,
I feel every day a greater disposition to drop this nonsense. It takes up a great deal of my time, and as it is incessantly calling upon me, I can never have any respite: in the extreme cold of winter I have no convenience, for writing, and was it not for the pleasure of complaining to myself, I believe I should have done long ago.
He didn’t give it up. His total diary output lasted for 68 years, including an unbroken daily record for more than 25 years. On Dec. 31, 1788, he concluded the year 1788 with the New Year’s Eve diary entry,
Eve with Foster at Mr. Jackson's, He was out.
With thanks to Molly McCarthy in The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America. This story about the almanac was updated in 2019.