Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Almanac: A Pre-Internet Data Bank

There was a time when by the beginning of each year would-be polymaths already had purchased their new almanac.  The information contained in these annual publications would provide a potpourri of valuable data as well as much engrossing trivia.

Many people associate this genre with Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack and The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which can trace its lineage back to 1792.  By the next century, various newspapers, associations and entrepreneurs developed much more expanded almanacs with local, national and international statistics.

Reading these old almanacs can provide countless hours of enjoyment. One example of an early nineteenth-century almanac is The National Calendar and Annals of the United States of 1833.  Volume XI has 336 pages and includes extensive material regarding the three branches of the federal government; population figures; trade and commerce information; and details on the operations of the post office and mint.

We learn that President Andrew Jackson was paid a surprising $25,000 and Secretary of  War Lewis Cass, $6,000.  Senate and House members were compensated $8 per day and $8 “for every twenty miles travel.”  Both chambers had Indian Affairs committees and the House had one on Revolutionary Pensions.

The Census data is disaggregated.  In 1830 there were 10.5 million free whites; 2 million slaves and 473,000 free African Americans.  This total number of nearly 13 million people parallels the current population of Illinois.

The District of Columbia, with 39,834 inhabitants, included five jurisdictions:  Washington City, Georgetown, Washington County, Alexandria and Alexandria County. The Florida Territory, which would not be admitted to the Union until 1845, had a total population of 34,730.

Also of interest are the lists of all commissioned army and navy officers and where they were stationed; a compilation of lighthouses, their superintendents and their salary (Massachusetts had the most lighthouses, 28, and Maine was next with 22); and exports (China was fifth in receiving our foreign exports).

Among the seven denominations of coins minted were half dimes and quarter eagle ($2.50) and half eagle ($5) gold pieces.  About 9.1 million coins were produced; the number of pennies turned out by three U.S. mints in 2008 was more than five billion!

Even more detailed information appears in twentieth-century almanacs.  The two main competitors in the 1950s and 1960s were the The World Almanac and Book of Facts and Information Please Almanac.  The latter publication had 928 pages in its 1964 edition.  It has virtually every imaginable bit of information, including such lists as the world’s top ten manganese ore producers and game-by-game results for each World Series going back to 1903.

But one thing that year’s almanac did not have was anything about the Kennedy assassination, which occurred on November 22, 1963.  Almanacs went to press early and were usually available by Thanksgiving. So, the preview of the 1964 election confidently notes: “It is clear that President Kennedy will once again be the Democratic nominee.”

With the rapid explosion of information in recent years. especially with the advent of the Internet, the almanac has had less importance.  But these books were once indispensible treasure troves of information and, in fact, still provide fascinating reading.

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