By Feist, Timothy | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview


Feist, Timothy, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The almanac trade involved three categories of almanac, each produced in staggering quantities throughout the eighteenth century. This mass production occurred in a predictable and profitable annual cycle, making the Stationers' Company an early exemplar of something like industrial capitalism. The sheer volume of this trade leads one to conclude that the cultural influence of almanacs must have been significant.

Almanac Taxonomy

Legally, "almanac" in eighteenth century England was another name for a calendar.1 A printed tool used chiefly for marking the passage of time, utility defined the almanac genre so that, in common usage, the term came to signify not just a calendar but a compendium of information useful for orienting one's life to the annual rhythms of commerce, government, and the physical "world. The Stationers' Company-sole legal purveyor of almanacs to Englishmen-produced almanacs in three types: sheet, pocket, and book.

Printed in decorative red and black, sheet almanacs such as Wing's Sheet Almanack, the London Sheet Almanack, or the Cambridge Sheet Almanack functioned like wall calendars do today. Consumers pinned sheet almanacs to their walls to display a calendar grid for the entire year, usually accompanied by a table of lunar phases, sunrises, and prominent constellations. In addition, the Company sold two pocket almanacs, Rider's and Goldsmith's. These also consisted of a single rubricated (red-and-black) sheet, but instead of pinning the whole sheet flat, pocket almanacs were cut to miniature size and stitched together for portability.

Book almanacs were composed of no fewer than two full sheets cut and stitched into booklets. The Company developed two kinds of book almanacs: blanks and sorts. Differences between them lay in the amount of paper used (blanks typically consisted of two and a half sheets, sorts had only two), rubrication (blanks had their first and second sheets printed in black and red, sorts had only the first), and their calendar format (blanks used a full opening for each month, but sorts showed only one month per page). The Warehouse-Keeper sold book almanacs unbound, but retailers often interleaved book almanacs with blank sheets for note taking and diary keeping and sold them in bindings of varying quality.

Both blanks and sorts contained a variety of information. Almost all contained weather predictions; dates for the terms (Michaelmas, Lady's Day, etc.); a regal table listing English monarchs and the dates of their reigns; instructions for astrological farming, tide tables, and a historical chronology; detailed information on comets and eclipses; and rising and setting times for the sun, moon, and major constellations. Depending on the title, a customer might also get lists of fairs and major highways (sometimes with a woodcut map), formats for drawing up legal documents, tables for calculating interest, tables of weights and measures, or instructions for basic surveying. Many almanacs included essays on astronomy, astrology, and mathematics-along with some bad poetry. Because most almanac makers had been astrologers since the sixteenth century, sorts were often divided into two sections: a calendar and an attached "ephemeris" or "prognostication." Occasionally the ephemeris included its own title page, which (if separated from the calendar) could lead one to consider it a separate work altogether. Some nonastrological sorts retained this two-section format, substituting informational essays or tables for prophecy in the ephemeris section. Blanks usually integrated their astrology into their roomier two-page calendars, but a few included an ephemeris with seasonal prophecies to supplement their monthly predictions.2

The Rhythm of Production

Appropriately for a calendar, production of the Stationers' Company almanacs followed a consistent annual rhythm. The sale of the almanacs-like the Ash Wednesday feast, the Election Feast, and the Lord Mayor's Day parade-composed part of the Company's immutable annual regimen. …

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