It's Old Farmer's Almanac time
A look back at the publication's colorful history
Having an early boyhood fascination with the weather, I looked forward each fall in New Jersey to the various almanac predictions for the upcoming winter. Although I didn't put much stock in their long-range forecasts (nor do I now), nevertheless, as a snow-lover, it was always promising when the outlook was for a severe winter. And when someone said, as they always did and still do at this time of year, "I heard the almanac is predicting a lot of snow this winter," I would always say, "Which almanac?" Then, as now, almanac forecasts varied greatly.
Although a number of almanacs exist, many of which have a decent following, the granddaddy of them all is the Old Farmer's Almanac. Published since 1792, it is possibly the oldest continuous publication in America. In our area, the Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack is another favorite, claiming to be almost as old as the Old Farmer's Almanac.
When Robert B. Thomas created his almanac (originally called The Farmer's Almanac), his goal, as with other similar publications, was to provide astronomical predictions, tidal forecasts, planting tables, etc., as well as entertainment in the form of puzzles, anecdotes, and conundrums.
He wrapped all of this into a distinctively yellow little (bigger now) book with a loose-leaf hole in the upper left-hand corner.* But he also sought to provide weather predictions in a humorous, rhyming tone with greater accuracy than that of his competitors. To this day, tradition has it that the Almanac is 80% accurate and Judson Hale, semi-retired CEO and past editor says: "We wouldn't dream of messing with tradition."(1)
Thomas's witty, down-to-earth style resonated so well with his readers that after just a few years, circulation had tripled to around 9.000 and continued to grow thereafter, so that today it is in the range of 3 to 4 million. (2)
But Thomas, as well as future editors, greatly underestimated how much the readership enjoyed the weather prediction style established in the early years. In 1938, for example, when then editor Roger Scaife dropped the predictions and instead included past weather averages, circulation suffered greatly. "Put one foot on a cake of ice and your other foot in a pail of boiling water, and the average says you feel just fine," one unhappy reader said. (3)
Weather predictions were restored the following year--just in time, it seems, for a German spy who landed on Long Island in 1942 to be apprehended by the FBI--with the latest copy of the Almanac in his pocket. Under wartime censorship regulations, as described in Into the fog: when the weather was a secret), it was forbidden to provide any kind of weather information through the media. The Almanac, however, was apparently absolved and able to convince the government that it was only supplying weather "indications," not predictions.
Perhaps the most famous incident of all in the 218-year history of the Old Farmer's Almanac was in the fall of the year 1815 when editor Thomas was sick in bed with the flu but had prepared the publication beforehand. It's been suggested that the printer or copy boy, as a prank, indicated that it would snow on July 13th the following summer (1816). Thomas discovered the trickery and had all, or almost all, copies destroyed. He then ordered a new publishing run.
Some of the original copies apparently got out, however, and Thomas took a lot of heat as a result. But when the year 1816, later known as the "the year without a summer" arrived, snow and cold did, in fact, occur sporadically in New England (and elsewhere) throughout the summer, including July 13th, as the printer said it would. See my story "A Year Without a Summer?" of last year.
As you might expect, Thomas, who was originally ridiculed for the prediction, now tried to claim credit for the error, saying that this was what he expected all along.
Judson Hale says that he occasionally runs across an 1816 issue of the Almanac but, to date, has never found one of the missing 1816 "snow" copies. (4) I suspect that if one were to be found, it would be quite valuable.
By the way, in a brief telephone interview, Janice Stillman, current editor of the Almanac, predicts "above average" snowfall (though nothing like last winter) and below average (except February) temperatures for the mid-Atlantic this winter--much of this at odds with more conventional outlooks. Furthermore, she expects a relatively cool spring and summer, which most of us would welcome.
In addition, Ms. Stillman reiterates the almanac's position that: based on its "time-honored and closely guarded" formula which takes into account solar activity, ocean temperatures, and other factors, the planet will be undergoing global cooling--offset somewhat by global warming caused by increasing amounts of atmospheric greenhouse gases--for decades to come.
*As the story goes, Thomas started drilling a hole in his magazine so that readers could hang them on a nail or string. But apparently he underestimated the ingenuity and creativity of his reading public, as it was discovered that many readers hung them in their outhouses. Upon completing a page, since it was sturdy stock, it was then used for an unintended purpose. More recently, although the outhouses are gone (I think), when the magazine decided to eliminate the hole, which was supposedly costing the publishers about $40,000 per year, there was a major outcry. The decision was reversed.
(1) New England's Disastrous Weather, Yankee Books
(2) History of The Old Farmer's Almanac, Yankee Publishing, Inc.
(3) New England's Disastrous Weather, Yankee Books
(4) Predicting Snow for the Summer of 1816, by Judson Hale, Source: The Best of The Old Farmer's Almanac: The First 200 Years
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