A familiar friend, after 200 years
Old Farmer’s Almanac a blend of age-old forecasting, modern topicsBy Michael G. Williams
After some two centuries in print, it’s the oldest continuously published journal in the U.S. Its bright yellow cover adorned with elaborate scroll work is recognizable at a glance, as is the name emblazoned across the center in gothic print.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has been a familiar friend to Americans since 1792, when New Englander Robert B. Thomas printed 3,000 copies of the first edition. A calendar maker by trade, Thomas ventured forth in a world brimming with similar publications, perhaps the best known of them being Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.
And in all this time, Thomas’s is the only one still around.
“Mr. Thomas was truly passionate about the almanac,” says Mare-Anne Jarvela, the almanac’s senior research editor. “He was a voracious reader who grew up in a house loaded with books that introduced him to subjects like astronomy and mathematics.”
Secret weather forecasting formulas
Thomas harnessed this knowledge and developed weather forecasting formulas that remain a secret to this day.
“We actually have the original handwritten formulas locked in a black box here in our office,” says Jarvela. “We keep them under wraps, but I can tell you that Thomas believed the sun’s energy had something to do with our weather patterns, and this is related to at least a portion of the formula.”
But the almanac was then, and is today, more than just weather. Originally published with New England’s vast farming community at heart, Thomas’s almanac tripled in circulation by its second year, forcing the publisher to broaden its scope.
Readers found tables that charted the phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset times, tide levels, even financial interest rates and local court dates—information that benefited farmers, fishermen, and merchants.
The almanac is a renaissance man’s publication in the 21st century as well.
“Part of what has kept readers coming back year after year is the almanac’s variety,” remarks Jarvela. “Often, people will ask what’s new in this year’s almanac, and we always tell them, ‘Everything is new. We don’t recycle anything.’”
According to Jarvela, the almanac’s staff of six spends a full year working on a single issue, brainstorming story topics and gathering the massive amounts of data that fill the book’s charts.
Out of these 12 months of hard work comes a reference book packed with gardening tips; home remedies; recipes; and articles on history, sports, home decorating, fashion, and technology, not to mention the much anticipated weather forecasts.
“Our content is always new,” Jarvela adds, “but the book itself still looks and feels the same. We feel we owe that to our readers, many of whom have known this publication their entire lives and can still see it in their parents’ or grandparents’ home sitting on the coffee table or hanging from a hook on the wall.”
Indeed, the almanac’s current publisher, Yankee Publishing, learned just how deeply rooted these memories were in 1990, when it stopped punching the characteristic hole in the top left corner of the book. After readers overwhelmingly expressed their disapproval in a subsequent survey, the hole reappeared.
And despite its name, this publication may be “old” but it hasn’t had trouble adapting to the modern world. While it still goes out to four million print readers in the U.S. and Canada, Jarvela notes that the almanac is also available as an eBook on Amazon.com and iTunes.
The quaint country periodical has even expanded into the realm of smartphones with apps that give users the phases of the moon, cooking recipes, and daily words of wisdom.
“Whether you get the almanac in print or digitally, we strive to preserve the look and content that, together, offer our readers the comfort of familiarity,” Jarvela says. “If we continue to do that, we may be around for another 200 years.”