The almanac has been called the one universal book of modern literature. In early America it was the most abundant and most indispensable of all publications, a necessity to farmers, navigators, householders, townspeople, the gentry, the professional class, and even to scholars. The almanac had an essential place in homes where no other form of literature entered and where, often, not even the Bible and the newspaper were found. If the almanac had a comprehensive subject, it was: How to get through life. The otherwise dissociated miscellany it contained was indeed rather like that forming the contents of a person's mind as he gets through life each day. Not only an anthology of daily life but a preview of its entire visible cosmic setting through the coming cycle of months was to be found in this stitched-up pamphlet of soft paper, "Fly blown and tattered, that above the fire / Devoted smokes and furnishes the fates / And perigees and apogees of moons."
Today, the almanac remains one of the most generally attractive categories of early publications because of the pleasing variety of matter found within it. Besides the calendar pages, it includes farming advice, medical and domestic recipes, literary excerpts in verse and prose, morally edifying passages and celebrations of rural virtue, political exhortations, useful lists of roads and schedules of courts, tables of money, and popular humor that too often was crude, coarse, and cruel.
The story of the formation of the almanac collection at AAS has been told in Clarence Brigham's Fifty Years of Collecting Americana. Some limitation has since been imposed upon its scope, and the collection now consists of 15,000 almanacs printed from 1656 through 1876 in the United States, Canada, Mexico,and the West Indies. About three-quarters of all the almanacs published in America through this period are at the Society, the only such comprehensive collection in existence. The Society continues to acquire missing titles or issues with some regularity as almanacs from private collections continue to become available.
A special feature of almanac cataloging at AAS is authorship attribution. Numerous almanacs were published anonymously or pseudonymously, but many of their calculators have been identified through close comparison with other almanacs for the same year and region. Identification of the authors of many of these has considerably expanded the work of known calculators.
The great size of the almanac collection has also provided a unique opportunity for assembling more knowledge about almanacs and their readers. As cataloging has proceeded, two volumes of extracts, revealing what the matter in their calendar pages and other astronomical portions meant, what purposes it served, and how almanacs were made and published have been compiled. Eventually these will be arranged in permanent form to serve as a resource for the study of Americana unique to this library. For personal recollections, see Richard Anders, "A Cataloguer and His Almanacs," The Book: Newsletter of the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture, no. 20 (March 1990).
Full cataloging of all of the Society's almanacs published through 1820 is completed. They are already entered in the Society's General Catalog under title and author or calculator, as well as by state and date, with full bibliographic descriptions. The catalog entries for almanacs published through 1800, and for many of those through 1830, have been computerized and are available in the Society's online catalog. Almanacs in the library printed from 1821 through 1849 are shown in Milton Drake's bibliography, Almanacs of the United States, 2 vols. (New York, 1962), and those through 1876 are readily accessible by means of simple lists and files at the Society.