Innocent Bystander: The Old Farmer's Almanac, 1872

The homely publications of a hundred years ago have a message for us. The Official Railway Guide of June, 1868, for example, tells me the disheartening news that my regular twenty-seven-mile commute took ten minutes less one hundred and four years ago than it does today. And the 1872 Old Farmer’s Almanac, which I picked up in a New Hampshire secondhand store some years ago, bears even odder tidings.

If you consult the Almanac today, you know that behind its familiar yellow cover is a thick pack of oddments— snippets of astrology, weather prognostications, old rhymes and jokes, a spate of small-space ads for trusses, roach-killer, and fish lures, and on pages that deal with the months of the year ahead, a series of nostalgic, neatly written “Farmer’s Calendars.”

Things were different in 1872. The Almanac was thin—a mere fifty-two pages—and the only ads inside its peach covers (the original yellow was dropped for a time in the middle of the nineteenth century) touted Hallet & Davis pianos (endorsed by “F. Liszt, the First Pianist in the World”), Webb & Twombly’s Premium Chocolates (which “have taken the highest award at every Fair in which they have been exhibited”), Wheeler & Wilson’s Sewing Machines, Worcester’s Quarto Dictionary (with a testimonial from Edward Everett), and the wares of Henry C. Sawyer, whose Waltham Book Store also sold stationery, wallpaper, silverplate, luggage, desks, Bibles, brushes, combs, perfumery, soap, pocket knives and scissors, fans for ladies, umbrellas, picture frames, and, of course, the Almanac.

But it is the editorial matter of the old Almanac that startles the modern reader. Beginning soberly with a table of Meetings of Friends in New England and a list of salaries of executive officers of the United States (“Ulysses S. Grant, Ill., Pres., $25,000; Hamilton Fish, N.Y., Sec. State, $8,000”), it goes on through a page of astronomical data and rosters of New England colleges and registers in bankruptcy to an early crescendo: the spreads for the months of the year. Each is laid out much as it is today: a table of astronomical calculations on the left, a rather sketchy forecast and the “Farmer’s Calendar” on the right. But these “Farmer’s Calendars” are nothing like the rather bland, pleasant little essays of today. Each of them preaches and rails at the farmer to keep a better farm and live a better life; the Protestant ethic rears its minatory head in January and harangues the reader through the waxing and the waning year. The nameless scourge of slothful husbandmen begins the cycle, after a terse New Year’s greeting, well into his evangelical stride: “Make up your mind therefore to be better and to do better, to aim higher and to have nobler ends in view. . . . Let us sit down by the crackling fire and lay out plans for the year. I suppose you have done the chores, of course, fed the cattle and the pigs, and cleaned up the barn. No use to sit down till the chores are done. . . .” In February, he has progressed a step further in his righteous indignation at his captive parishioners; now he begins by berating them: “Snug up about the barn this winter. Shut the door and the windows. Cold won’t make cattle tough. ... I wouldn’t give a fig for a man who can’t turn his mind to little things. All your luck in farming hangs on the chores at this season.”

In March, he is quick to turn on the hapless, snowbound farmer who grouses about the weather. “No use to fret about the storm and the snow. Keep your temper is a good rule on the farm. This way of finding fault with heaven and earth won’t do. . . . It’s a pity you don’t raise more roots. Hadn’t you better look about for a spot to put in an acre of mangolds and another of swedes?”

The Old Farmer takes the offensive early and keeps the pressure up; the shiftless reader won’t get a breather, even in springtime: “All plant life is on the spring now, and animal life too, as to that matter. And so you’d better spring around. John, if you want to see your barn well filled in the fall. Yoke up and go at it with vour fine and sprightly team. . . . The fact is, there is no end to the work this month, and no time to lose in standing around or leaning over the wall with a gossiping neighbor.” And: “It is of no use to find fault with work. We ought to thank our stars that we are able to work.”

As the summer ends, the taskmaster’s lips are thinner than ever: “Now that the dog star rages, why don’t you give the dog a bullet [presumably a pill of dog-days medicine], the boy a hoe, the girl the knitting needles. No work, no eating, is the rule, you know. Can’t afford to keep drones on the farm.” In September, to keep the enervated farmer on the qui vive, the Almanac lays out an impressive list of chores, including removing stones from fields to be tilled. “I hope you got out those rocks. ... It is a shiftless way to lay down a lot with the bushes growing along the walls. Why don’t you dig them out, and clean up the lot?” In October, he notes, with relish, that “there is enough to do to keep us on the jog all this month”; in November, after a peremptory reference to Thanksgiving, he’s off again about stalling the cattle every night, fall sowing and plowing, and trimming the grapevines. Even in December—notably, there’s no mention of Christmas—he’s harping about the grapevines again, as well as pruning the fruit trees, making an inventory of stock and tools on the farm (“the sooner you set about it, the better you will be off”), and generally preparing for the worst: “Spruce up and get ready for a hard winter.”

The rest of the Almanac is similarly grim; it dispels a number of common notions among farmers about cabbage, kitchen gardens, grass for horses, and food for stock, calls attention to the adulteration of commercial fertilizers, cautions the reader about transplanting evergreens (“it is a mistake to suppose that the same rules apply to evergreens as to deciduous trees”), and sagely discusses the pitfalls of stock-breeding farms. Then a little light relief: three pages of poetry, anecdotes, and puzzles, most of them not so light, at that. One poem, a tearjerker, was “found under the pillow of a soldier who died in a hospital near Port Royal, South Carolina.” “Selections” include Scott’s “O, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive”; the jokes include this epitaph: “I was well—wished to be betterread medical books—took medicine and died.”

The 1872 Almanac ends there, with the exception of a few population tables (according to the census of 1870, there were 38,555,983 people in the United States, of whom 942,292 lived in New York City and 4,382,759 in New York State; California could boast a mere 560,247), weather tables, tide tables, and post office regulations (first-class letters, 3 cents per half ounce). It ends with a sort of a whimper and a curious feeling of oppression in the reader, as if he had just been through that exhausting year with the poor, bone-weary farmer. It ends, finally, with a question forming in the modern reader’s mind: Were the good old days that bad? In an age when we are daily and sorely tried by all sorts of mindboggling disasters and injustices, when we daily repair to the past for reassurance and refreshment, is it possible that we are really better off than our forebears, and that our carefully cultivated nostalgia is founded on a mirage? On the evidence of the 1872 Almanac, that could well be. The stern preachments of the anonymous author of the “Farmer’s Calendar” are not mere mouthings; it seems clear that the struggling farmer of a century ago really needed these appeals to his pride and his sense of duty in order to get on with the backbreaking, dawn-to-dusk job of cultivating his garden. It was a savage life of imponderables—blizzards, floods, crop failures, insect plagues, human and animal diseases for which there were no known cures—and only the most bitterly Calvinistic outlook could prepare one to compete in what had, eventually, to be a losing race. There was no social security in those days, no government price supports, no anesthesia, and above all no leisure. The farmer had literally nothing to look forward to except the fruits of a job well done and another day, week, month, and year of unremitting toil to keep ahead of a hostile nature.

To us, seated in our warm houses on our choreless days off from work, knitted to all our friends by the telephone, possessed of cars to take us across the county or across the country as the whim strikes us, disposing of a hundred diversions to beguile our leisure, protected by effective medical care (for those, at least, who can afford it), assured of a cash competence in our retirement, this stark world of a hundred years ago is hard indeed to believe in—which is one of the reasons why we believe in a gilded age when all the world was young, when cares were tew, when love was true, when, over the river and through the woods, grandmother’s house was filled with goodwill, provender, and jollity. Too bad the truth was otherwise.