In my last Palmer’s Almanac (Journal Record, Feb. 20), I traced the evolution of almanacs from the beginning of recorded time to the founding of the United States of America. As American expansion moved west, the publication of almanacs soon followed.
Almanacs began as inscriptions on clay tablets about 5,000 years ago in the fertile Euphrates valley in modern-day Iraq.
Ancient farmers kept records of the seasons, the weather and the climate as a way of predicting when Spring planting should begin and, hopefully, increasing the next season’s harvest.
As human thought and technology evolved, the clay tablets gave way to vellum (animal skins) and eventually paper as a way of preserving the vital information required to help guarantee a future harvest.
In a belief that the stars and planets affected events on earth, the ancients recorded the paths of those heavenly bodies through the night sky.
Today, almanacs that we purchase off the magazine racks continue to feature the secrets of the zodiac, astronomical tables, planting tables, gardening hints, facts and folklore, predictions, mysteries of the universe and much more.
When Europeans settled America they brought their religion and almanacs with them and that’s why quite a few of the early American almanacs start the New Year in the month of March and not January. This was a reflection of the Puritan refusal to accept the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
Cambridge, Mass., became the center for almanac publishing in America. Stephen Day, a Puritan, published the first American almanac called An Almanack for New England for the Year 1639. The content was compiled by William Pierce.
Many other almanacs soon appeared on the American scene, including Father Abraham's Almanack, The American Almanack, The Rhode Island Almanack, The Maryland Almanack, The Farmer's Almanack, and The American Anti-Slavery Almanac, which became a portent of the future American Civil War, 1861-65.
In 1727 James Franklin began publishing his Rhode-Island Almanack. In 1732 James' brother, Ben, began publishing the most famous almanac in America, Poor Richard's Almanack.
Ben Franklin's almanac began as a light-hearted parody of astrologers but soon became a source of useful knowledge and information. Franklin became wealthy by publishing his wise aphorisms under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.
In 1767 Sarah Goddard became the first woman to publish an almanac. From 1767 to 1769 she published The New England Almanac and Ladies and Gentleman's Diary. After Sarah's death in 1770, her daughter, Mary Katherine Goddard, ran the print shop. Mary Katherine became the first female newspaper editor and postmistress. She was also the first newspaper editor to publish the names of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Mary Katherine's brother, William Goddard, printed and sold numerous almanacs in colonial New England. In 1791 he printed and sold Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris For the Year of Our Lord 1792. The astronomical data for this almanac was calculated by the astronomer, mathematician and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who would become known as the "Negro Man of Science." Banneker's almanac became so popular that by 1794 it was being published in multiple editions.
Banneker was an assistant to the surveyor and astronomer Andrew Ellicott, who completed the survey for Washington, D.C., after the original surveyor, Pierre L'Enfant, was fired by George Washington. Ellicott also calculated and compiled the information for his own almanac called Ellicott's Maryland and Virginia Almanac.
In 1799 Andrew Ellicott erected what is now called the Ellicott Stone on the Mobile River in Mobile County, Ala. The stone was part of the demarcation line that established the boundary between Spanish West Florida and United States territory to the north.
In 1846 University of Alabama mathematics professor Frederick A. P. Barnard was hired by a joint commission to re-establish Ellicott's line after a prolonged boundary dispute between Alabama and Florida. After Barnard reestablished the line, it was never in dispute again.
But years before that, in 1839, Barnard calculated astronomical data for the Alabama State Almanac published in Tuscaloosa. The almanac was designed as a conveyor of scientific knowledge, but apparently there was no demand for such information in Alabama and the almanac had a short run.
Where Barnard failed at content, the enterprising Maxwell Brothers of Tuscaloosa succeeded grandly. The Maxwell Almanac had a 35-year run in Tuscaloosa and the Southeast.
The Maxwell Almanac was distributed free of charge and included calendar pages, zodiacs, essays, whimsical poems and lists of all the merchandise that could be found in the Maxwell Brothers store. The store was located on the northeast corner of University Boulevard (then called Broad Street) and 23rd Avenue in Tuscaloosa.
The Maxwell Almanac was printed in Hartford, Conn., and was forced to cease publication for four years due to the Federal blockade of the South during the Civil War. The government attempted to stop the flow of goods into the South by guarding all the Southern ports.
However, Burke, Boykin & Co. filled in the gap and began publishing the Confederate States Almanac with astronomical calculations made at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Their 1864 almanac provided tips and recipes that came in handy during the Federal blockade of the South. The makers offered recipes on how to make coffee out of rye and beer from corn. To make the beer, the recipe says the maker should “boil one pint of corn until quite soft, in water to cover it, pour into a jar. Add a quart of syrup or molasses, a handful of dried apples, one ounce pulverized ginger, a cup of solid yeast dissolved in a little warm water, and three gallons of water. Set it in a warm place in winter, and a cool place in summer. It will be fit for use in two days.”
If you make the beer, write to the Journal Record and let us know how it came out. Until then, keep reading the almanacs!