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For the independent-minded colonists in America the almanac and the Bible were the only books. Essentially middle-class, with the desire for economic gain guiding and inspiring their material life and Puritanism dominating the spiritual side, these early Americans did not have the leisure nor the cultural incentive to read literature. The Bible satisfied most of their religious needs; the almanac filled, in a measure hard to appreciate today, the want of entertainment and practical instruction.
The literary value of the almanac has been flayed unfairly by meticulous and stodgy critics. They laugh harshly at its bad grammar and with academic glee point out the weaknesses of phrasing. Yet, considering the value of the almanac for of the colonists, one must deafen himself to the cries of the literary know-alls and listen only to the appeals of practicality and amusement that come from social historians. Once Moses Coit Tyler wrote: "No one who would penetrate to the core of early American literature, and would read in it the secret history of the people in whose minds it took root..., may by any means turn away, in lofty literary scorn, from the almanac--most despised, most prolific, most indispensable of books, which every man uses, and no man praises; the very quack, clown, pack-horse, and pariah of modern literature, yet the one universal book of modern literature. . ."
For the historian and antiquarian the almanac is invaluable. As the practical earmark of a basically practical age, it reflected the life and manners of the colonial period. The almanac was, as it were, the tone of American life until 1800. When the number of colonial printing presses multiplied and the cost of publication dropped as a result, the almanac lost its influence and significance. When it became a relic, it was used ignominiously.
From the moment when Appius Claudius's secretary, Fabius, stole and publicly exhibited the Kalendares of the Roman priests, three hundred years before Christ, the calendar of days has belonged to the people and held a head position in the almanacs of all nations. In 1472 the astronomer Regio-Montanus originated the present form of the almanac. The first book to be printed in the colonies was "An Almanac calculated for New England, by Mr. Picrce." The printer was one Stephen Daye of Cambridge; the date, 1639.
Contrary to popular belief, Nathaniel Ames, and not Ben Franklin, published the best colonial almanac. A Dedham physician and inn-keeper, Ames distributed his first issue in 1725. His publication became the most popular of its kind in New England and reached the then enormous circulation of 60,000. His calendar included such bits of wit as this: "Dec. 7-10. 'Ladies take heed, Lay down your fans, And handle well, Your warming paus."
Today at ten o'clock the Vagabond will attend Perry Miller's lecture on "Almanacs" in Harvard 6.
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