Keeping Time in the Age of Franklin: Almanacs and the Atlantic World

Article excerpt

WHAT communities choose to print can be telling about what they find important or necessary. As such, print history has much to offer histories of self-identity and the development of nationalism. (1) In March 1639, John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony and the diligent chronicler of the early settlement, noted that a

   printing house was begun at Cambridge by one Daye, at the charge of
   Mr. Glover, who died on sea hitherward. The first thing which was
   printed was the freeman's oath; the next thing was an almanac made
   for New England by Mr. William Peirce Mariner; the next was the
   Psalms newly turned into metre. (2)

The history of printing in North America, or at least in the British colonies, thus began with the production of government documents, a religious work, and an almanac. This mixture of official job work, confessional commissions, and almanacs would be typical of the output of colonial printing shops for the next 150 years; although another Cambridge almanac probably was not produced for another five years, almanacs became one of the predominant printed products in the colonies. Winthrop's note also points to the close connections between printing and the Atlantic World: Glover, the newly-retained English printer, died "of a fever" on the voyage from London (leaving scholars to debate who operated the press in his absence), and the title of the Almanack Calculated for New England, by Mr Peirce, Mariner, advertised the nautical connections of its author. (3) William Peirce, perhaps the most noted mariner of the New England waters of his day, compiled the almanac in the same year as he carried Pequot Indians to the West Indies and returned with a cargo of enslaved Africans. In this way, the circumstances of the Cambridge Almanack's production and its sea-faring almanac-maker emphasized the close ties between astronomical competence, trade and the Atlantic world, while almanacs themselves, with their charting of heavenly activities, also linked the local reader to a wider, transatlantic community, united by a common calendar, time-keeping and astrological interests.

The print history of colonial almanacs raises a number of questions about the wider role that they played during the colonial period, particularly during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Almanacs played an intimate part in the shift from a predominantly oral culture, to one in which the authority of print was paramount. As popular literacy became increasingly secularized and influenced by business transactions, everyday transactions were increasingly confirmed by or took place in the world of print. Almanacs, particularly those that were interleaved as daybooks and were carried around the person, became an import means to negotiate the personal and the national, confirmed through the medium of the printed and bound page. (1) This paper examines some of the connections between these themes, arguing that the form, structure and distribution of almanacs constituted an important element in the creation of national identity, as well as underscoring the links across the Atlantic. It suggests that they are as deserving of study as are newspapers, pamphlets and the book itself. By examining the practical ways in which almanacs were produced, exchanged and used, I will argue that their study may help show how national communities were created, in ways which at once emphasised their cosmopolitan nature as well as their local or national identity. The paper will also provide an outline of the structures of American almanac production, comparing them to British and West Indian almanacs, and showing the ways in which they were tied explicitly and implicitly into a range of networks, such as those of printers or merchants, ranging from those of the local colonial community to that of the British Empire.




My intention is not just to examine the content of almanacs, such as the proverbs, dates, or information that they contained, but to look at the structures of their production, and how both may have factored in the shaping of Atlantic identities: this paper is thus something of an experiment on the borders of print history--examining how the form, content and materiality of the text intersected--and the history of nationalism. …