The Ladies' Diary, 18th Century English Almanacs, and One Frustrating Enigma

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In the November 2011 Word Ways, Jim Puder points out that the solution I found in the 1783 Ladies' Diary for Eliza Hurst's riddle ("an oven") could not be correct--not only did it make no sense in the context, but the number of answers given did not correspond to the number of questions asked in the 1782 Ladies' Diary. Jim is absolutely correct.


Happily, the correct answer has now been found, but in the process I learned a fair amount about 18th-century British almanacs, some of which strikes me as being worth sharing.

First, to understand why my answer was wrong, you need to realize that there were actually two entirely different almanacs called The Ladies' Diary at the time. One was The Ladies' Diary: or Woman's Almanac (edited by Charles Hutton), which had been published by the Stationers' Company annually since 1704 (and would continue until 1841). The other was The Ladies' Diary (edited by Reuben Burrow), published by Thomas Caman from 1776 until 1786 (titled The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Diary until 1780). The 1782 cover of The Ladies 'Diary (containing Eliza Hurst's riddle) is shown as Figure 2. The 1783 cover of The Ladies' Diary: or Womans's Almanac (containing the erroneous answer "oven") is shown as Figure 3 (the woman pictured, incidentally, is Queen Charlotte). I trust you will all forgive my assumption that they were two successive editions of the same almanac. This mistake seems to be fairly common--many collections of almanacs from the period seem to have only one or the other of these almanacs for a given year.



If you are thinking that Thomas Carnan was just doing a knock-off of an established product, you have hit the nail on the head. (There is actually an interesting, but not at all germane, story: King James I had given the Stationers' an extremely lucrative monopoly on publishing almanacs in return for an annuity to be paid to fund the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. When the Stationers' Company sued Carnan for publishing his own almanacs they lost--the court overturned the Crown's right to grant monopolies for lay publications--resulting in both the emergence of modern copyright law and the public funding of the Universities. Carnan's knock-off almanacs had an impact far greater than one would expect).

Most British almanacs at the time offered astrological forecasts (for example, from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or a Diary {Astronomical, Astrological, Meteorological} for the Year of our Lord 1760 by John Gadbury, Student in Physic and Astrology: "July: The late Opposition of Saturn and Mars is not wanting in shewing its Effects in dividing the Councils of those Nations and Courts of Princes, where they have Debates and Consults about publick Business and the rather because of the two malefick Planets have lately been in Square to the Sun from these we shall hear of some violent Actions either by Sea or Land, if not both, and this in the Low Countries, Flanders, Italy, Sicily, Portugal, or the Frontiers of France.")

The Ladies' Diary (either version), on the other hand, reads like nothing so much as an 18th-Century version of Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games columns. It was begun as a women's alternative to The Gentleman's Diary or the Mathematical Repository (which claimed to offer "many useful and entertaining Particulars peculiarly adapted to the ingenious Gentlemen engaged in the delightful Study and Practice of the Mathematicks"). From what I can tell--I have been unable to find any of the very early copies--The Ladies' Diary began by offering things that the publisher assumed would be more of interest to women--recipes, housekeeping tips, etc., but within a few years had shifted to essentially replicating the format of The Gentleman's Diary--offering a number of riddles, puzzles, and mathematical and scientific questions to be answered by the readers. Despite what reads as a very patronizing subtitle to modem readers, "Designed for the Use and Diversion of the Fair-Sex," it does not appear to talk down to its readers at all--it is difficult to discern anything that distinguishes the content suitable for The Ladies' Diary from content that would be published in The Gentlemen's Diary. …