The New International Encyclopædia/Almanac

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AL'MANAC (Of disputed origin). A book or table containing a calendar of the civil divisions of the year, the times of the various astronomical phenomena, and other useful or entertaining information. Till a comparatively modern date, this additional matter consisted of astrological predictions and other analogous absurdities; it now embraces, in the best almanacs, a wide variety of useful notes and information, chronological, statistical, political, agricultural, etc.

The history of almanacs, like all early history of astronomy, goes back to very ancient times. The Alexandrian Greeks certainly had almanacs, though the time when they first appeared in Europe is not precisely known. The oldest of the copies (manuscript) existing are of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; there are specimens in the libraries of the British Museum and of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The earliest known printed European almanac was compiled by the celebrated astronomer Purbach, and appeared between the years 1450 and 1461; but the first almanac of importance was that compiled by his pupil, Regiomontanus, for the fifty-seven years from 1475 to 1531, for which he received a munificent donation from Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary. Bernardo de Granolachs of Barcelona commenced the publication of an almanac in 1487; the printer Engel of Vienna, in 1491; and Stöffler of Tübingen, in 1524. Copies of these are now very rare. In 1533 Rabelais published at Lyons his almanac for that year, and renewed the publication in 1535, 1548, and 1550. The fame and popularity of the astrologer Nostradamus, who prophesied the death of Henry II. of France, gave such an impulse to the publication of predictions, that in 1579 Henry III. of France prohibited the insertion of any political prophecies in almanacs — a prohibition renewed by Louis XIII. in 1628. Before this, in the reign of Charles IX., a royal ordonnance required every almanac to be stamped with the approval of the diocesan bishop.

Prophetic almanacs have circulated very largely in France in the rural districts and among the uneducated. The most interesting of these is perhaps the old Almanach Liégeois, a venerable remnant of superstition. It was first published at Liège — according to the invariable title-page which takes no note of time — in 1636, by one Matthieu Laensbergh, whose existence, however, at any time seems very problematical. The Almanach Liégeois is a most convenient one for those who are unable to read, for by certain symbols attached to certain dates the most unlettered persons can follow its instructions; thus, the rude representation of a vial announces the proper phase of the moon under which a draught of medicine should be taken; a pill-box designates the planet most propitious for pills; a pair of scissors points out the proper period for cutting hair, a lancet for letting blood. Of course, amid innumerable predictions, some may naturally be expected to come to pass. So in 1774 this almanac predicted that in April of that year a royal favorite would play her last part. Madame du Barry took the prediction to herself, and repeatedly exclaimed: “I wish this villainous month of April were over.” In May Louis XV. died, and Madame du Barry's last part was really played. The credit of old Matthieu was established more firmly than ever. In 1852, a commission having examined between 7000 and 8000 of the national chapbooks, which included a great number of almanacs, pronounced them so deleterious, that it became necessary forcibly to check their circulation. Although still in vogue amongst the ignorant, their popularity is greatly on the wane.

In England, so far was any restraint from being put upon the publication of prophetic almanacs, or “prognostications,” as they were usually called, that royal letters patent gave a monopoly of the trade to the two universities and the Stationers' Company, under whose patronage, and with the imprimatur of the Archbishop of Canterbury, such productions as Moore's Almanac and Poor Robin's Almanac flourished vigorously; although “it would be difficult to find, in so small a compass, an equal quantity of ignorance, profligacy, and imposture as was condensed in these publications.” The memory of Partridge, long employed as the prophet of the Stationers' Company, is preserved in the lively diatribe of Swift, writing under the name of Bickerstaff. There is a legal decision on record in the year 1775, in favor of a bookseller named Carnan, abolishing the monopoly of the Stationers' Company. In 1779 Lord North brought in a bill renewing their privileges. After a powerful speech against the measure by Erskine, who exposed the pernicious influence of the productions published under the monopoly, it was rejected. The Stationers' Company, however, still maintained their ground by buying up all rival almanacs; and it was not until the publication, in 1828, of the British Almanac, by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, that the eyes of the English public became opened to the irrational and deleterious nature of the commodity which their own indifference or folly, as much as the selfishness of their purveyors, had hitherto maintained in existence. In Scotland the earliest almanacs seem to have been produced about the beginning of the sixteenth century. Shortly after the beginning of the seventeenth century the almanacs, or “prognostications,” published at Aberdeen had begun to acquire a great reputation. About the year 1677 they were sold for a plack each; and the annual circulation amounted, on an average, to 50,000 copies. In 1683 appeared a rival publication, under the title of Edinburgh's True Almanack, or a True Prognostication. For a long time Scottish almanacs continued, like all others of that age, to contain little besides a calendar, with a list of fairs, and — what constituted the great attraction — predictions of the weather. But something more instructive and comprehensive became requisite, and the Edinburgh Almanac seems to have been among the first to respond to this requirement of advancing civilization; for, by various additions, such as a list of Scottish members of parliament, it had, in 1745, been extended from the original 16 pages to 36. In twelve years from that date it had swelled to 72 pages; in 1779 it had reached 252 pages. After 1837 it was published under the title of Oliver and Boyd's New Edinburgh Almanac, and extended to above 1000 pages.

Almanacs containing astrological and other predictions are still published in Great Britain; but their influence is extremely limited, even among the most ignorant portion of the community, and their contents are fitted to excite amusement rather than any stronger emotion. In America, the publication of almanacs for popular use is confined very largely to the vendors of proprietary or patent nostrums and medicines. These persons distribute the almanacs gratuitously, judging rightly that they constitute a most excellent advertisement of their wares. This is due principally to the fact that people keep their almanacs at hand throughout the year, and thus the advertisements printed in them are ever present to the public eye. Among the almanacs in America that are sold for a small price, the most important are probably the Old Farmers', issued in New England, and those coming from several great newspaper offices. It is believed that the first common almanac in this country was for 1687, from Bradford's press in Philadelphia. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, begun in 1732, was kept up by him about twenty-five years, and was widely known both at home and abroad for its wise and witty sayings. The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge was issued in Boston from 1828 to 1861; a continuation, The National Almanac, came out for two years only, 1863 and 1864. Nearly every religious denomination has its special annual, either almanac or year-book; and many trades, professions, and enterprises have similar publications.

There are also important astronomical almanacs. The Nautical Almanac, published in England, was projected by Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811, who urged its value in connection with the use of lunar distances for the determination of longitude. The first edition of this work was published with the authority of Government in 1767. After Dr. Maskelyne's death it gradually lost its character, and in 1830, in consequence of the numerous complaints made against it, the Government requested the Astronomical Society to pronounce upon the subject. The suggestions of the society were adopted, and in 1834 the first number of the new series appeared, with such additions and improvements as the advanced state of astronomical science rendered necessary. Still older than this almanac is the French Connaissance des Temps, commenced in 1679 by Picard, and now published under the authority of the Bureau des Longitudes. Its plan is similar to that of the Nautical Almanac, but it has contained a larger amount of original memoirs, many of them of great value. Equally celebrated is the Berlin Astronomisches Jahrhuch, issued from the Berlin Observatory. In the United States the American Nautical Almanac was begun in 1849 by Charles Henry Davis, United States Navy, and the first volume (for 1855) was published in 1853. The publication is issued from the office of the Nautical Almanac and American Ephemeris, United States Navy Department, in Washington, and contains tables of the predicted positions of the sun, moon, and planets, and of all the fixed stars used in navigation. It is published three years in advance, for the convenience of navigators bound on long voyages. The Nautical Almanac or Astronomical Ephemeris is of the greatest importance to astronomers, as it contains collections of numerical data required in the computation of their celestial observations, which are equally necessary to enable navigators to find their way across the sea by the aid of the sextant.

The preparation and publication of these almanacs, though most important, are so costly, that they are possible only to the great financial resources of governments, and it is largely for this purpose that governmental astronomical observatories are maintained.

Congress in 1849 provided for the publication of such a work, in which “the meridian of the observatory at Washington shall be adopted and used as the American meridian for astronomical purposes, and the meridian of Greenwich shall be adopted for all nautical purposes.” This law caused the division of the work into the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac. The first-named part is chiefly for the use of astronomers; the second is adapted to the use of navigators.