GREENWICH, N.Y. — The Old Farmer’s Almanac was an important tool that American farmers used for decades to help manage their farms. While it may not be an authoritative source amongst today’s growers like it used to be, the Almanac remains a source of information and curiosity for growers and gardeners of all kinds.
The almanac is an annual publication that tracks astronomical events, offers weather predictions, timetables for sunrises and sunsets, tracks tides, and other natural phenomena for the coming year. The weather features, as well as other information like planting and livestock breeding suggestions and homemaking advice made them an invaluable tool for farmers. The almanac also came to include other features like advice columns, witticisms, riddles, puzzles, recipes, home remedies, and more.
Tracking astronomical features has been practiced since ancient times. Some of the earliest evidences of it date back to the 4th century B.C. where ancient Babylonians devised formulas to predict the position of planets. The earliest almanacs were compilations of charts predicting the movements of the sun, moon, and planets. The first almanac to appear in Europe was written in 1088 A.D. by the Islamic astronomer Abu al-Zarqali. From then on, the almanac grew in popularity.1
The first American almanac was compiled in 1639 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.2 Almanacs quickly became the second most popular book in the American colonies, second only to the Bible. For 25 years Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack which became the most popular of the almanacs in the colonies and had a major cultural impact on early America.3 Many of the advice and sayings that were included in the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanack are a part of the American vernacular today, for instance:
- “Lost time is never found again.”
- “Fish and house guests stink after three days.”
- “He that lies with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”
In 1792 Robert B. Thomas started the longest running almanac in the United States, the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Thomas was a New England teacher, bookbinder, and lifelong lover of astronomy. He combined these skills and interests into the almanac which costed 6 pence (about 9 cents in today’s money). The almanac was a sensation selling 3,000 copies in its first year which tripled to 9,000 copies the next year.4
Most farmers consulted almanacs for its weather predictions. While not perfect, the Old Farmer’s Almanac had a reputation for getting them correct. The Almanac’s formula for weather predictions remains a secret kept locked away in a black box at the publication’s headquarters in Dublin, New Hampshire.5 While the exact formula is unknown editors say that it is based on a theory developed by Galileo which holds that sunspots influence the climate and weather on Earth. The thinking is that if the sun is more active it will be warmer on earth, while if it is less active it will be cooler.6 The formula also reportedly incorporates climatology and meteorology trends.
The Almanac was right sometimes even when it did not intend to be. For example, in 1815 a misprint stated that there would be winter-like weather in July. However, in 1815 a large volcanic eruption in Indonesia disrupted climate and weather conditions across the globe and 1816 became known as the “The Year Without a Summer” featuring cold temperatures, snowfall in June, and hard frost each month of the year.7 According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac its predictions are correct about 80% of the time, however researchers believe that its accuracy is actually around 50% correct.8
The Almanac’s ability to be correct at least some of the time made it a handy tool for farmers. Without the technology for weather forecasting until more recent times, the Almanac was a source of information for farmers to use when planning their farm activities for the year. For a more skeptical farmer, at the very least they provided information or suggestions to take into consideration. Eventually the Almanac was printed with a hole in the left corner so that it could be hung on a nail in a household for easy access. It was a source non-farmers consulted as well. The Old Farmer’s Almanac would receive letters throughout the year from people planning events asking whether a particular day or weekend would have good weather.9
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has been printed every year since 1792, although production nearly stopped during World War II. In 1942 a German spy was discovered on Long Island, New York. One of the items found on him was the most recent edition of the Almanac. Authorities then suspected that the German army was using the Almanac for weather forecasts and it was therefore inadvertently helping the enemy. The Almanac’s editor was able to convince the government that providing weather indications as opposed to forecasts would not violate the “Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press” in effect at that time and the Almanac was able to keep its publication streak alive.10
In 1818 the Farmer’s Almanac was first published and is the second longest running almanac in the U.S. and is the chief competitor to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The publication is still in print and offers similar kinds of predictions and material as the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Modern meteorological technology has made weather forecasting more accurate than the almanac and a more reliable source for today’s farmers. However, the Almanac remains in print and while it may not be a “semi-sacred text” anymore, it is something both farmers and town folk refer to for farm and gardening tips or to enjoy the other content it features.
So, what is the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicting for this coming winter? Well, it depends on where you live. The Almanac is predicting a “wet & mild” winter for the Western U.S. with lots of rain and temperatures that trend above normal. Meanwhile, for the Midwest and East the prediction is “shivery & snowy” with the potential for record cold temperatures and above normal snowfall totals. We shall have to wait and see if their predictions are on point this year.
1 Jack Feerick, “The History of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Why Its Popularity Endures,” Discover Magazine, December 4, 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/the-history-of-the-old-farmers-almanac-and-why-its-popularity-endures.
2 “The Old Farmer’s Almanac — All You Needed To Know And Then Some Since 1792,” New England Historical Society, accessed October 27, 2022, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/old-farmers-almanac-needed-know-since-1792/.
3 Jack Feerick, “The History of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Why Its Popularity Endures,” Discover Magazine, December 4, 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/the-history-of-the-old-farmers-almanac-and-why-its-popularity-endures.
4 “History of the Old Farmer’s Almanac,” Almanac, August 8, 2022, https://www.almanac.com/history-old-farmers-almanac.
6 Adrienne LaFrance, “How the Old Farmer’s Almanac Previewed the Information Age,” The Atlantic, November 13, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/how-the-old-farmers-almanac-previewed-the-information-age/415836/.
7 “The Old Farmer’s Almanac — All You Needed To Know And Then Some Since 1792,” New England Historical Society, accessed October 27, 2022, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/old-farmers-almanac-needed-know-since-1792/.
8 Jack Feerick, “The History of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Why Its Popularity Endures,” Discover Magazine, December 4, 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/the-history-of-the-old-farmers-almanac-and-why-its-popularity-endures.
9 Adrienne LaFrance, “How the Old Farmer’s Almanac Previewed the Information Age,” The Atlantic, November 13, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/how-the-old-farmers-almanac-previewed-the-information-age/415836/.
10 “History of the Old Farmer’s Almanac,” Almanac, August 8, 2022, https://www.almanac.com/history-old-farmers-almanac.