There will always be a market for horoscopes as long as there are also people willing to part with ready money for hens’ teeth, magic beans and rocking-horse droppings. Astrological almanacs, with their idiosyncratic advertisements for lucky amulets, liver pills and snake oil, continue to sell in numbers in first half of the twenty-first century, whilst the corresponding sales of muskets, farthingales and indulgences have dropped through the floor.
|Dr Herrick's Sugar Coated Vegetable Liver Pills|
The main thrust of almanac-publishing began to distance itself from the prognostication business as early as 1644, when John Evelyn published his Kalendarium Hortense, which gave sound advice to gardeners, nurserymen and farmers regarding what to do, at what time of year, when to plant and when to harvest, and which also contains the following sterling advice,
“…every man ought for his health's sake … take a country walk of a mile, every morning before breakfast and, if possible, let it be upon your own ground.”
|John Evelyn - Kalendarium Hortense - 1699 [9th Ed]|
It is full of good, practical advice, and is just as relevant and useful today, particularly as we are looking more and more to older, organic methods of growing our foodstuffs, without chemicals and pesticides, and there is a burgeoning trend in reviving the older strains and varieties of native plants. Evelyn includes the corresponding astrological symbol at the head of each month but that is where he stops any reference to the stars, unlike in his medicinal Herball, which is packed with superstitious nonsense and absurd jiggery-pokery.
|Evelyn - April - Kalendarium Hortense|
In 1704, John Tipper, a Coventry schoolmaster, began his Ladies’ Diary, an almanac that omitted any reference to quackery but promoted the study of mathematics, logic and rationality in ‘the fairer sex’, together with recipes, biographies of celebrated woman and other articles aimed at a female audience. The Ladies’ Diary was very successful, so much so that a parallel but independent publication, the Gentlemen’s Diary, was launched in 1741, and the two ran separately until their amalgamation in 1841. Many of the mathematical and logic problems from the Ladies’ Diary, called Enigmas, were collected and published in separate volumes, The Diarian Miscellany, from 1775.
|C Hutton - Diarian Miscellany - 1775|
The astronomical information that began as aids to horoscope-drawers was recognised to be of value to mariners, navigators and the military, and naval almanacs and ephemerides, with tide tables, navigation guides and other related topics became an increasingly invaluable resource for, amongst other bodies, the Royal Navy.
|Tennent's Register and Marine Digest - 1877|
A challenge to the vested interests of the Stationers’ Company came in 1755, when Thomas Carnan issued an almanac without their authority and was, predictably, dragged before the Court of Common Pleas for his temerity where, undoubtedly to the surprise of both sides, Carnan’s action was upheld and the legal monopoly was broken.
|The Almanac of Fashion - 1873|
Four years later, Lord North’s attempt to re-institute the monopoly with a parliamentary Bill was defeated by a 45-vote majority, although the Company retained their influence over the book market through the 15d stamp duty payable on any almanac sold (selling an unstamped almanac carried a prison sentence of not more than three months, and a 20 shilling reward was paid to anyone apprehending the vendor of an unstamped almanac).
|John Partridge - Merlinus Liberatus - 1842|
This duty was repealed in 1834, and the trade in almanacs flourished thereafter. However, if anything can be said to have driven a palpable nail into the coffin of the frivolous almanacs, it arrived a few years earlier in the form of the British Almanac.
|The British Almanac - 1828|
Published by the splendidly named Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (more of whom at a later date), the British Almanac was first published in 1828, and in the Preliminary Observations of the first issue, the compilers specifically single out Partridge and Moore by name as those guilty of disseminating spurious nonsense. They point out the ridiculous situation of long-term weather forecasting.
“These works profess, in the plainest terms, to foretel [sic] the weather, even to a day; stating that on one day there will be rain, on another snow, and on a third thunder.”
|Old Moore's Almanack - 1862|
Similarly, they criticise the broad, vague predictions on the political scene, of the ‘expect bad news from Scotland’ sort, the use of divisive language as might lead to different religious sects into conflict, the ‘utterly obscene’ articles in these almanacs so offensive that they “… could never be admitted into any decent house,” and, of course, “… the absurdities of their astrology.”
|Table of Term Time Starts and Finishes for Oxford and Cambridge|
Instead, the British Almanac concentrated on facts, to the extent that even the most uncompromising Gradgrind could not find fault, with comprehensive lists of term times, public holidays, tide tables, astronomical phenomena, chronological tables of notable events, the latitudes and longitudes of the principal foreign cities, postage duties, gardening tips and hints, and a review of the principal technological innovations of the previous twelve months.
|The London Kalendar - 1804|
The Gentleman’s Magazine welcomed the change of direction, and celebrated that the
“… day of the old almanacks was gone; their sun was set; ‘useful knowledge’ beat ‘useless ignorance’ out of the field.”
The British Almanac continued to be published until 1897, and set the standard for other ‘serious’ almanacs, of which Whitaker’s (founded in 1868) is perhaps the most famous and popular example still produced today.