On the Almanac’s hundredth anniversary, farmers were advised to plow up the old strawberry bed and plant sweet German rutabagas in July. Household tips ranged from ‘Music in the household should be a comfort to each member’ to ‘small red ants can be destroyed by dipping a sponge in hot lard, and placing it on the shelf where they appear.’
The 1858 edition may have been used by Abraham Lincoln to get a “not guilty” verdict for his client. The story goes that young Abe Lincoln was defending 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.
It isn’t certain that Lincoln used The Old Farmer’s Almanac, because it wasn’t the only almanac at the time. The first almanac in America was printed in 1639 in Cambridge, Mass., and others followed. Among them was Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac in Philadelphia. 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.
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 was considered quite a scholar and had a large library that included Robert’s favorite book, Astronomy by James Ferguson.
From the time he was 20 until he was 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, bound them and sold them as bound volumes to nearby storekeepers and schoolmasters.
In 1792 he went to Boston and studied under Osgood Carleton, an almanac author. He studied solar activity, weather patterns and astronomical cycles to come up with a secret forecasting formula that’s still used. 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, such as drilling a hole in it so it could be hung from a nail and adding ‘Old’ to the title.
The almanac gave tide tables, weather predictions, schedules for colleges and Friends (Quaker) meetings, carriage fares in Boston, postal regulations and advice. For example, along with the dates the courts would be open in six states, it offered this morsel:
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 was inadvertently correct about the weather. A printer’s mistake included a prediction of winter weather for July. The year 1816 was known as the Year Without a Summer, with 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 begins the year with the admonition ‘to decide if John or James, or both, shall be sent to the Agricultural College….Get Up early enough in the morning to give all the cattle a good carding.’
In October, the almanac warned the farmer not to permit his boys or hired men to shake off good winter apples. ‘They should be picked off and handled as carefully as if they were eggs.’
In 1794, the Farmer’s Almanac advised the farmer to catch up with his reading in the winter. “He sees his barns, granaries, and cellars, all well filled by his own industry and frugality; his farm affording him all the comforts and necessaries of life, enables him to spend the long and tedious winter evenings with his family round a good fire and a clean hearth, where he may read THEOLOGY, GEOGRAPHY, HISTORY, &C. and edify and entertain them.” Robert Thomas advised his readers to call upon their debtors for settlement to see their books are balanced before the new years. And he recommended The life of Dr. Franklin, ‘for the amusement of winter evenings.’
Today, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is the oldest continuously published periodical in North America.
This story was updated in 2017.