The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Almanac

Edition of 1920. See also Almanac on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ALMANAC, a table or calendar, in which are set down the revolutions of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the most remarkable conjunctions, positions and phenomena of the heavenly bodies, for every month and day of the year; also the several fasts and feasts to be observed in the Church and state, etc. The history of the almanac, and even the etymology of the word, are involved in considerable obscurity. It is generally derived from the Arabic article at and the verb manach, to count The modern almanac answers to the fasti of the ancient Romans. Almanacs became generally used in Europe within a short time after the invention of printing; and they were very early remarkable, as some are now in England, for the mixture of truth and falsehood which they contained. In 1579 their effects in France were found so mischievous, from the pretended prophecies which they published, that an edict was promulgated by Henry III forbidding any predictions to be inserted in them relating to civil affairs, whether those of the state or of private persons. No such law was ever enacted in England. It is singular that the earliest English almanacs were printed in Holland on small folio sheets; and these have occasionally been preserved from having been pasted within the covers of old books. In the reign of James I letters patent were granted to the two universities and the Stationers' Company for an exclusive right of printing almanacs. These, in 1775, were declared to be illegal. During the civil wars of Charles I and thence onward, English almanacs were conspicuous for the unblushing boldness of their astrological predictions and their determined perpetuation of popular errors. The Stationers' Company, who had managed to retain a monopoly notwithstanding the invalidity of the letters patent in their favor, were guided merely by commercial principles in supplying the market, and accordingly adapted their almanacs to the taste of the public, which, on one occasion, when the trial was actually made, refused to purchase them without the predictions. Gradually, however, a better taste began to prevail, and in 1828 the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge had the merit of taking the lead in the production of an unexceptionable almanac in Great Britain. The example thus set has been almost universally adopted. Almanacs, from their periodical character and the frequency with which they are referred to, are now more and more used as vehicles for conveying statistical information. Regiomontanus was the first person in Europe who prepared almanacs in their present form, without the predictions, which were in all probability introduced into Europe from the Persians. Once they were almost entirely filled with subjects of a religious character. At another time they overflowed with astrological calculations and predictions. In the time of Napoleon an almanac was published in France in which, to every day, an achievement of the Emperor, or something else relating to him, was added. Almanacs in the petty principalities of Germany exhibit the endless genealogical tables of the princes. Some almanacs in modern Greek, printed at Venice, where formerly all books in this language were published, are quite full of astrological superstition and matters relating to the Greek Church. A modern Persian almanac contains a list of fortunate days for certain purposes; as, for example, to buy, to sell, to take medicine, to marry, etc.; and predictions of events, as earthquakes, storms, political affairs, etc. One of the most curious almanacs is an Italian one exhibiting Italian vivacity in a striking manner. To the entry 30 July is added, Sudano ancora le ossa! (Even the bones sweat); to 11 August, Oh! che noia! (Oh! how distressing!); to 12 July Cascano le braccia (The arms fall); to 2 January, Stivali e ombrello! (Leggings and umbrellas!) In Germany, almanach is the name given to annuals like those which used to appear in England and the United States under the names of ‘Souvenir,’ ‘Forget-me-not,’ etc. In France a work once appeared annually entitled ‘Almanach des Gourmands,’ which was conducted with much spirit and is in high repute among epicures. Some of the almanacs that are regularly published every year are extremely useful and are indeed almost indispensable to men engaged in official, mercantile, literary or professional business. Such in Great Britain are ‘Oliver & Boyd's Edinburgh Almanac,’ ‘Thom's Official Directory’ and the ‘British Almanac,’ with its ‘Companion.’ ‘Whitaker's Almanac’ is also known as a very comprehensive and valuable compendium. The ‘Almanach de Gotha,’ which has appeared at Gotha since 1764, contains in small bulk a wonderful quantify of information regarding the reigning families and governments, the finances, commerce, population, etc., of the different states throughout the world. It is published both in a French and in a German edition. ‘The Nautical Almanac’ is an important work published annually by the British government, two or three years in advance, in which is contained much useful astronomical matter, more especially the distances of the moon from the sun, and from certain fixed stars, for every three hours of mean time, adapted to the meridian of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. By comparing these with the distances carefully observed at sea the mariner may with comparative ease infer his longitude with sufficient accuracy in case he has no chronometer for keeping Greenwich time. This almanac was commenced in 1767 by Dr. Maskelyne, astronomer royal. The French ‘Connaissance des Temps’ is published with the same views as the English ‘Nautical Almanac’ and nearly on the same plan. It commenced in 1679. Of a similar character is the ‘Astronomisches Jahrbuch,’ published at Berlin. The ‘American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac’ is issued annually since 1855 by the United States government.

The first American almanac was that of William Pierce of Cambridge, published in 1639. The most famous of American almanacs was ‘Poor Richard's,’ published in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin under the pseudonym of “Richard Saunders.” This almanac was probably imitated from that of Thomas, of Dedham, Mass., which was kept for a good many years and contains many pleasant and witty verses, jests and sayings. The information printed in these almanacs seems to have been the only means of carrying news to the more distant parts of the country. ‘The American Almanac’ appeared between 1830-61, and a second publication under the same name was edited for several years by Ainsworth R. Spofford. Several of the largest newspapers in the United States now issue almanacs which are marvels of condensed information. See Calendar.