‘The Old Farmer’s Almanac’

American Icons, Made in America
on February 9, 2014
Pam Matthews

In 1942, a German spy was arrested on New York’s Long Island with a copy of “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” in his pocket. Fearing the booklet’s weather forecasts might aid the enemy, the War Department asked the almanac’s editors to cease publication. After some negotiation, government officials agreed a slight change in content would eliminate any danger and the almanac was allowed to go to press.

Consequently, “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” is North America’s oldest continuously published periodical, having been printed for 222 consecutive years.

When Robert B. Thomas launched the agricultural handbook in 1792 in Boston, Massachusetts, George Washington was serving as the nation’s first president. While Thomas’ almanac wasn’t unique—several others existed at the time—it thrived because of practical information and fanciful wit. Within a year, circulation tripled to 9,000.

Today, 3 million copies of “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” are distributed annually in the United States and Canada, and though the periodical has evolved over the years, much of its content remains the same as it was more than two centuries ago. Plus, its editors continue to be guided by Thomas’ aim to be “useful, with a pleasant degree of humor.”

Since its founding, the almanac has provided horticultural advice and celestial data such as times of sunrise and sunset; phases of the moon; solstice and equinox dates; news of eclipses, comets and meteor showers; and other matters of a heavenly nature. Even the four seasons drawing on the cover has remained the same since 1851 and bears some of the same elements as during Thomas’ 50-plus years as editor.

Its long-range weather forecasts, tailored for 23 climatic regions in North America, have a reputation for reliability. “Our claim is a traditional accuracy of 80 percent,” says Janice Stillman, the almanac’s 13th editor.

Modern meteorological data now is used to formulate the almanac’s weather prognostications, Stillman adds, but forecasters still apply “Thomas’ secret formula,” which is kept in a secure black tin box at the almanac’s offices in Dublin, New Hampshire, where the almanac shares space with Yankee Publishing, its parent company since 1939.

While much of the early almanac’s advice was for farmers, its focus gradually has shifted toward gardening — 58 percent of its readers live on an acre or less — but it also offers wit and wisdom on subjects such as pets, food and folklore.

The 2014 edition, for instance, contains a feature by contributing editor Tim Clark, titled “Putting the World Right with Old-Fashioned Ways.” Among its lore: “Plant corn after the first woodpecker appears,” and “To make a scarecrow more effective, make its arms from hickory wood.”

Clark, 63, acknowledges a measure of eccentricity in the almanac’s content, “a little out on a limb, surprising, arcane, unpredictable.” But its core, he says, is “enduring truths. We offer what’s of interest today, but not ephemeral. It’s a balance between what’s current and what’s lasting.”

Like its forecasting, the formula works and has generated an online following as well. The almanac’s website, almanac.com, serves millions of visitors each month.

“Our readers, are information seekers,” Stillman says. “They enjoy the bits and pieces of data, trivia and esoteric details in a story, as well as the proverbs and quotes with which we embellish many features.”