Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

South Carolina Yesteryear

Almanacs: Perennial Best-Sellers

 

by Dr. Lewis P. Jones

They tell us everything from the moon phase on August 3 to Napoleon's Waterloo nemesis. Second in popularity only to the Bible, they were indispensable to early South Carolinians.

A dependable clue as to the nature of society is its choice of reading matter. The fact that TV Guide has the largest circulation of any magazine tells much about the interests of contemporary America.

Throughout American history, the Bible has been consistently the best-seller. Second best, however, was not Shakespeare, Karl Marx or Lewis Grizzard. That spot belongs to the lowly and homely almanac. Publishers of those folksy booklets had one advantage over Bible publishers: Readers had to buy a new one every year.

The first of these compendiums of miscellaneous knowledge appeared in Massachusetts in 1639. The one with the greatest longevity still is going strong: The Farmers' Almanac, launched by Robert Thomas in 1792 (with the word "old" added to its title in 1832). Also begun in New England, it catered to those states, but later had several editions aimed at different regions but with similar basic information in all of them. Its simple treatment of scientific subjects, its generally moral and literary character, its proverbs and personal advice have appealed to many generations of devoted purchasers who faithfully take their umbrellas to work whenever that oracle predicts rain.

The more general almanacs such as the World Almanac (started by the New York World in 1868 and affectionately bought by thousands of philomaths) came out of that same background.

 

Sound Advice

Besides being popular, almanacs have played a special role in American history. They strengthened agriculture and helped families who for so long constituted the bulk of the American population. Almanacs provided guidance, advice, suggestions and scientific information to an agricultural society which knew not Clemson extension services, home demonstration agents nor active state departments of agriculture. Lowly though they were, almanacs were significantly useful - and entertaining. They furnished a "scientific agricultural education" for people who otherwise would have had none.

Most provided monthly summaries of what currently should be in progress, as well as advice for gardeners: when to plant certain things, when and what to fertilize, how to perform certain tasks more efficiently or effectively. In that respect they are still helpful - even to perspiring suburbanites with their lawns and ornamentals.

State agricultural societies sponsored some almanacs and distributed information to others. Bason's Country Almanac of 1825 (published in Augusta) prescribed how to destroy worms in fruit trees - followed by a sure-fire "Cure for Chronic Rheumatism" (drink red pepper tea just before going to bed). Hoff's Agricultural & Commercial Almanac for 1806 (Charleston) presented a method "to prevent Smut from damaging wheat" and gave tables for calculating interest. Miller's Agricultural Almanac for 1827 (Charleston) published addresses by Thomas Pinckney and William Washington on successful corn planting procedures and the culture of millet. For the allegedly weaker sex, a section "Important to Ladies" gave such useful advice as how to preserve and care for mourning clothes between periods when they were supposed to be worn.

 

More Than Just a Calendar

One feature was standard in all almanacs and made them indispensable. Today we are deluged annually with free calendar advertisements from every imaginable kind of business. Not so in the 18th and 19th centuries. Every almanac had at least 12 pages for the annual calendar - and with more about each day than just its number. The almanac calendar told the time of sunrise and sunset, tide tables, moon phases, temperature records in the past on each date, events in history on each date, and signs of the planets and their current locations in the Zodiac. The seasons and such information governed the farmer's life and determined his timetable. And one obviously needed to know the waning phase of the moon so that in planting root crops such as turnips or radishes, the root would go downward properly as the moon was doing. Daily newspapers now provide all that information, but in those days there were few newspapers.

All these astronomical data and schedules varied with different places. Thus each almanac had to tell for what locality its astronomical observations were computed, so one could calculate those for his or her own place. This explains the regional editions: A Massachusetts almanac would hardly give the correct sunrise time for Beaufort or the tide at Georgetown.

A reader always could learn when the moon was in the sign of Aquarius and hence was governing the legs. In the front of most almanacs was always the chart labeled "Anatomy of Man's Body as Governed by the Twelve Constellations," providing what one historian called "astronomical forecasts" - a blessing for astrologers and a mystery for the rest of us.

 

Standard Almanacs

The American Almanac & Repository of Useful Knowledge was a prototype for national and local almanacs. If your neighbor has been pestering you for a list of the 19 newspapers and 9 periodical journals in South Carolina in 1835, send him to that Repository, 1835 edition. He thereafter probably would hound you with stray wise sayings, proverbs, wit and wisdom. Best-known for such philosophizing was Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac (1732-1757).

If the neighbor comes back for a list of the 321 chapters of the South Carolina Grange during Reconstruction, send him to the Abbeville Medium Almanac, 1875.

 

Almanacs Everywhere

Producing these unalphabetized encyclopedias must have been a lucrative business. Nearly every colonial printer issued one. Many were established by organizations or movements. Political parties launched their own. The Masons had one. Religious denominations used theirs to evangelize. The temperance movement fought Demon Rum with publications such as Green's Anti-Intemperance Almanac.

Most, however, saw farmers as their constituency - plus citizens just curious for assorted information that is today available in various periodicals and libraries.

In South Carolina, by the early 1750s John Tobler was publishing his almanac with contents typical of such: the Lunations and Eclipses," "some diverting epigrams," a garden calendar "by a lady of the province" and a description of the roads in the southern colonies. Tobler was a German-Swiss who arrived here in 1737 and became a successful settler in New Windsor township, across the river from modern Augusta. He also wrote an interesting description of South Carolina which was published in Switzerland in an almanac written in German in 1754. (It was republished in the S.C. Historical Magazine, 71 (1970), 141-61; 257-75.)

The earliest almanac I have encountered in the original is the South Carolina Almanac and Register for 1760 by George Andrews. He proclaimed that it included not only all of the calendar but "More curious, entertaining and useful Particulars relating to this Province than ever before published in any Almanac."

With no national health care program around, Andrews provided "the Method of preparing the Body for Small-Pox Innoculation, &c. by the best Physicians. And the famous PITCAIRN'S Method of curing the Small-Pox." He had not sold his soul to the astrology lovers, but he was a diplomatic salesman, nevertheless: "Thou perhaps wilt ask me, why I have not given thee something like the Figure of a Man, all stuck full of points, with an Account of the Domain of the Stars over the different Parts of the human Body? I answer, I think thou hast a right of paying Thy Money for this Almanack, to all that can be gathered on that Matter from the Stars; I therefore assure thee, that neither the Stars nor any other Being have dominion over the Body of Man, except the Being of Beings who created it; Nevertheless, if thou art fond of such Figures, next year thou shalt be gratified."

In 1774, Robert Wells, a Charleston printer destined to be a Loyalist in the Revolution, published Well's Register Together With an Almanac "for the Year of our Lord, 1774; From the Creation of the World, 5783; And of the Julian Period, 6487." Not only did he list all the royal family but also all the English nobility (and dates they were created), all the king's ministers and officers, lists of all ships in the Royal Navy and the number of guns on each, the members of the Irish nobility, and all royal officials in America, arranged "by a rank and precedency" (pecking order). The entire bureaucracy in South Carolina was listed for those who joyed in such reading - plus all the astronomical data for Charleston, along with agricultural information. The Register's 116 pages made it larger than most.

 

Charleston's Dean: Printer A.E. Miller

Printers dominated the flood of almanacs that appeared in South Carolina down to the early 20th Century. One leader was A. E. Miller, "the dean of Charleston printers," who about 1817 began his series Miller's Planters' and Merchants' Almanac (the title varied at times). Almanacs with "Miller" in the title were going strong long after the Civil War, some aimed at a statewide or regional audience, some at smaller localities.

In his early appearances, Miller carried no advertisements except for his own printing business and book sales. Pages opposite the calendar pages were left blank so readers could make notes there. In the early years, Andrew Beers provided astronomical information and precise weather prophecies. (January 4 and 5, 1819, were slated to be foggy, but January 9 consolingly was labeled "Now fair.") Days of the month were listed in vertical columns, with assorted daily information available alongside.

Epigrams provided Miller with fillers: "He that cannot forgive others, breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself, for every man hath need of forgiveness." Or "Many, without labor would live by their wits only, but they fail for want of stock." Farmers received much guidance, such as explanations as to why dew water was more nourishing than rain water.

By the 1830s, Miller had added information about the South Carolina Railroad to his listing of stagecoach distances and fares. By rail, one went from Charleston to Hamburg for $6.75. ("Dogs must go on the Freight or Lumber Cars.")

On the roads, those traveling alone, such as circuit-riding preachers, needed guidance; hence some almanacs listed various mileages from one landmark (maybe a store, ferry or residence) to the next. (Modern highway maps and atlases are only a little older than TV. Incidentally, the distance in the 1830s from Charleston to Columbia by "the new State Road" was 110 miles; by I-26, 112.) Travelers were well advised to take an almanac along.

 

Kudos for All, From Boatswain's Mate to Clock Keeper

On a long winter's night, an avid reader could scan a list of all officers of the federal government; a list of the 72 ships in the Navy and their power (the Saratoga had 22 guns); the pay for all ranks and ratings in that Navy (a lieutenant, $40 a month and three rations per day; a boatswain's mate, $19 and one ration); members of the state legislature and other state office holders; summaries from the census; a schedule of all court sessions in the state for the year; and the names of all office holders in Charleston, including the physician to the poor house and the keeper of St. Michael's clock. If someone wanted to know who was sheriff in Sumter or coroner in Newberry, that eager reader by then was becoming either a well-informed person or a walking encyclopedia of useless information.

Like all American almanacs, those of Miller annually carried summaries about religious denominations: their statewide organizations (synod, convention, conference, etc.) with all officers, major committees and statistics about membership and ministers.

In later years, Walker, Evans & Cogswell - today the oldest printing firm in the state - printed what still was called Miller's Almanac. By the 1870s it included numerous advertisements, most from Charleston merchants, fertilizer companies and concocters of patent medicines. "Dr. Greene's Cure" promised to take care of your "fits, spasms, convulsions, nervousness, dread" and six other "derangements." In 1875, puny readers probably were lured to "Peruvian Syrup," which "vitalizes and enriches the blood, tones up the broken down, and cures Dyspepsia, Debility, Dropsy" and 12 other maladies plus the catch-all "&c." Medicare would bless it: one dollar a bottle.

 

Items From the Past

Like the "Highlights in History" feature in newspapers today, some event of the past was noted for each day in the year in most almanacs. You should be aware that St. Paul was converted on January 25, or that Jenny Lind was born October 6, 1821. Almanacs were particularly fond of listing battles (Battle of Balaklava, October 24, 1854) - but Loyalist Robert Wells in his 1774 almanac preferred English events.

The Confederate States Almanac of 1865 (published in Macon) tried to keep up Southern morale by listing Confederate victories, and it showed boundless Dixie optimism in predicting a total eclipse to be centered 70 miles north of Augusta on October 19, 1865, which would be "the most remarkable of all Eclipses that will occur in the Confederate States during the present century." For sure, they didn't have any more (or even that one).

Between 1865 and 1910, many South Carolina almanacs were tailored for certain towns or counties. These became as surfeited with advertisements as is the local evening news on TV.

For example, Miller's Planters' and Merchants' Almanac for Sumter County, S.C. for 1874, published by Walker, Evans & Cogswell, carried the same astrological information, advice to farmers, facts about the state's churches, lists of state and Charleston office holders, lists of Masonic chapters and farmers' Granges, etc., as appeared in other almanacs. Such a localized almanac, however, would carry advertisements of Sumter firms bunched in the front pages, along with random information and minutiae about Sumter - with Charleston ads elsewhere in the booklet.

 

The Peak in Popularity

Local almanacs printed by Lucas and Richardson all carried the same windy subtitle as the one for Union: Union, S.C., Almanac, 1881, Showing the Business Advantages of Union, S.C., Together With the Names and Advertisements of the Leading and Most Reliable Merchants and Business Men of the Town.

The popularity of such local almanacs peaked at the turn of the century. Some were produced by local printers who must have brought their general and calendar information from Charleston or elsewhere. Many took on the strident note of chamber of commerce promotions as they proclaimed their joy at having located the precise location of Utopia.

Nevertheless, these overdone doses of boosterism preserve for the present much information often difficult to locate elsewhere a century later: enrollment in local schools by grade and race, spending per pupil, postage rates, RFD routes, capitalization and dividend of local banks and industries, information about churches and railroads, number of looms and spindles, local officials and public employees, and short sketches of various businesses - provided said businesses had purchased an advertisement. Obviously, a merchant so unwise as not to advertise was cast into outer darkness.

 

Professorial Bylines

If printers were thriving from this torrent of the printed word, so were a few professors, who were "moonlighting," no less.

Again and again, one finds the names of J.H. Carlisle, J.A. Gamewell, James H. Bryce and D.D. Wallace - all faculty members at Wofford. Beginning in 1868, some of them were listed in statewide almanacs and those of the smaller towns.

Carlisle usually was credited with the "Calculations" of "Astronomical Observations." Gamewell usually was listed as "compiler" and Wallace, after 1900, as the "historical and statistical editor."

The most valuable statistics today are those Wallace compiled. To a degree, he supplied broader information and such useful data as those found today in the World Almanac and in that wondrous annual South Carolina Statistical Abstract. (To me, the only reading more intriguing than the latter are old railroad timetables.)

 

Enduring Journals

The day of such almanacs is gone - or about gone. Most durable have been the hundreds of farmers' almanacs, still available on newsstands. Free almanacs came along in the 19th Century, compiled and published by patent medicine companies to advertise their wonder-working products.

But who knows? Maybe patent medicines so publicized in almanacs can explain the phenomenal increase in life expectancy in the United States - modern health cereals and diets notwithstanding.

 

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