Off Topic

The Surprising Success of America’s Oldest Living Magazine

Modern media is a mess and weather prediction remains a crapshoot, but the only kind of publication that combines both—almanacs—are not only surviving, but thriving in the 21st century.

For a few days in early January, the entire East Coast was captivated by the weather forecast. Winter Storm Grayson was making its way towards landfall, and the warnings preceding it were epic.

Meteorologists warned of a coming “bomb cyclone.” Satellite images showed a giant, hurricane-like weather system barreling towards land. Words like “exploding” and “slamming” and “tearing” peppered the news reports. It was enough to conjure images of The Day After Tomorrow, the 2004 environmental thriller about a superstorm that brings on a new Ice Age. Americans are highly dependent on weather forecasts. Today, most of us rely on modern technology for predictions about the weather—forecasts based on readings of countless measuring tools, fed into computer models, then analyzed and broadcast or sent straight to our smartphones. But I had other tools of weather prediction, small enough to fit in my backpack: two farmers almanacs. They’ve been around hundreds of years, since before the Civil War, and have survived the advent of modern technology.

Janice Stillman, the editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, holds old editions of the almanac kept in a box in the history-filled office of Judson Hale in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Almanacs occupy a special place in the history of weather prediction. In the 1700s and 1800s, scores of publishers printed almanacs, and they were trusted widely enough as a source that Abraham Lincoln once won a murder trial using an almanac as evidence. Today, though, there are easier, more modern, and more scientific—simply, better—ways to tell the weather. Yet The Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, is among the longest-running continuously published periodicals in the United States. The Farmers’ Almanac, which began publishing in 1818, is not far behind it. Which led me to wonder: Who still reads farmers almanacs? As it turns out, a lot of people. The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s editors say it prints and distributes around 3 million copies a year, selling them at retail locations across the U.S. and in Canada. Its parent company, Yankee Publishing Inc., which also publishes Yankee and New Hampshire magazines, and several forms of Almanac-adjacent products like calendars and versions for kids, is profitable, according to its editors. In October, The Old Farmer’s Almanac topped the Boston Globe’s regional bestseller list in paperback nonfiction. Peter Geiger, editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, which sells retail almanacs as well as promotional editions for businesses, says it prints 2 million annually. Both publishing operations have surprisingly robust social media followings: Nearly 1.5 million for The Old Farmer’s, and almost 1.2 million for Farmers’. In this era of great media retrenchment, in which many traditional media brands have downsized or disappeared altogether, the almanacs are still surviving—and thriving.


 

The Old Farmer’s Almanac offices, which are shared with Yankee Magazine, in picturesque Dublin, New Hampshire.

To find out the secret to their ongoing appeal, I visited the headquarters of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, based in Dublin, New Hampshire. (My trip to the Farmers’ Almanac offices, in Lewiston, Maine, had to be moved to Skype thanks to the storm.) The morning I traveled to Dublin, a town of just over 1,500 an hour’s drive west from Manchester, the roads were plowed, the skies were clear, and the sun was bright. The only indication that the region was about to be hit with a snowstorm came from the flashing signs that kept appearing on the side of the road: STORM THURSDAY, BE PREPARED. The OFA’s office looks like a large, New England-style red barn, built out over the years to accommodate the staff of the Almanac and its sister publication, Yankee Magazine. It greets visitors at the crest of a small hill, just off of a traffic circle crowned by an American flag on a high pole. On one side of the building is a community center and a white steepled church. On the other is the red-doored garage of the volunteer fire department. Across the street is the town hall and the library, built with natural stone. The scene was beautiful, like the inside of a snowglobe about to be shaken up. “Farmer’s almanacs are essentially as old as dirt,” Janice Stillman, the editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, tells me. She’s just given me a tour of the office, which resembles what it would look like if your favorite grandparents ran a magazine: books spill over shelves, historical photos and old weather charts line the walls. Inside the wood-paneled office of editor-in-chief Judson Hale is a display of memorabilia and kitsch he calls Jud’s Museum. Old letters, even older rocks, and a taxidermied chicken all compete for attention.

Janice Stillman, the 13th editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the publication’s first female editor, poses in the history-filled office of Judson Hale at the Almanac's offices.

“As long as people have been growing things, and keeping animals, they’ve wanted advice to save time, save money, and save effort,” Stillman says. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, as she describes it, is “a calendar of the heavens,” in other words, a listing of astronomical events for the year, sunrise and sunset times, dates of the solstices and equinoxes, mixed with civic and religious holidays, proverbs, poems, and bits of trivia. The Almanac is a lot more than that, though: it’s also filled with advice on gardening, recipes, home remedies, astrology, and feature stories on everything from groundhogs to body odor. The earliest American almanacs were pamphlets that ran under 50 pages, but today, they run 200-300 pages, featuring images, illustrations, advertisements and more. “The Almanac is about the natural world, the rhythm and glory of nature, the animal life, the plant life, the astronomical life, the weather,” Stillman says. Mostly, though, it’s known for the weather: “Weather is the most popular subject, it’s the reason [readers] use the almanac.”


 

Old weather forecasting charts that reflect the sun’s spots made by former owner and publisher Robb Sagendorph at the Old Farmer’s Almanac offices.
According to editor-in-chief emeritus, Judson Hale, during World War II the U.S. government threatened to ban publication of The Old Farmer’s Almanac because officials believed the Germans were using it to read tide and weather forecasts.

Almanacs aren’t a uniquely American phenomenon—they date back to the Babylonian Empire—but they played a unique role in the cultural history of the United States. The first almanac published for the colonies was made in 1639 by William Pierce, but the first person to really elevate the form was Benjamin Franklin, who started publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732. Franklin’s spin on the almanac was satirical and roguish. His titular character, Poor Richard, was inspired by a fictional character created by Jonathan Swift; Franklin used him to predict the death of a rival almanac maker. Poor Richard’s was a smashing success, inspiring more imitators and injecting a number of aphorisms into popular culture, including “fish and visitors smell after three days,” and “he that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.” Other almanacs were, in some ways, imitators of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but subtle differences distinguished them. The founder of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Robert B. Thomas, grew up on a farm in Massachusetts with what he described as a library in his home—unique in a time when many country homes contained no more than a Bible and a few pamphlets. He was fascinated with astronomy, and, after traveling to Boston to learn how to make astronomical charts, began publishing in 1792. David Young, the founder of the Farmers’ Almanac, was an eccentric school teacher who had already dipped his toe into publishing when he decided to make his own almanac in 1818. The presence of multiple almanacs, all sharing broadly similar formats, has long created confusion—and competition—between them. “A selfish editor, who appears to be much chagrinned at our success,” Robert B. Thomas writes in a 1794 edition of a competing almanac publisher, also named Thomas, “has not only privately endeavored to injure us, but publickly attacked our reputation by charging us with making copious extracts from his former almanacks . . . [but] his almanack will be found to be fraught with error. In his astronomical calculations there were no less than fifty-six real errors.”

Paintings of the founders of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, Robert B. Thomas and Hannah Thomas, hang in the lobby of the publication’s offices.
Peter Geiger, the seventh editor of Farmers’ Almanac, sits for a portrait in the museum at the publication’s headquarters in Lewiston, Maine. The museum display is meant to show what an office of theirs could have looked like.
Judson Hale on the phone in his office at the Old Farmer’s Almanac headquarters. The 12th editor of the almanac, Hale is now the editor-in-chief emeritus and chairman of the board.

The competition exists to this day. Both the Farmers’ Almanac and The Old Farmer’s Almanac have articles on their websites claiming that they believe Abraham Lincoln used their almanac to defend his client in a famous murder trial. In 1858, William “Duff” Armstrong was charged with the murder of James Metzger, after witnesses said they saw Armstrong and another man, James Norris, viciously beat Metzger with a “slungshot,” or heavy weight attached to a looped cord. The pair were tried separately, and after Norris was convicted of manslaughter, Armstrong’s mother turned to Lincoln, a family friend, to help. In the trial, a key witness on the prosecution side swore he saw Lincoln’s client commit the murder via the moonlight. But Lincoln used a copy of an almanac, which showed the moon had set at the time of the murder, casting doubt on the testimony. In the end, the jury was convinced, and Armstrong was acquitted. When I ask the editors from both publications how they know the almanac used by Lincoln was, in fact, their own, Stillman says The Old Farmer’s Almanac was the only one to include in its calendar pages information as to whether the moon was running low or high on any given night. Peter Geiger, the editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, says that no one really knows for sure which almanac it was, but that he believes it was theirs. (One book on the subject says it was most likely a Jayne’s almanac, based on the jury foreman’s memories of the trial, though Stillman doubts the sourcing.) “Everybody’s aware of the other’s presence. There’s one other publication, a farmer’s almanac, that seems to, the kind word is, emulate everything we do,” Stillman says, grinning. “But we still believe we have the best package. My opinion will always be biased. We do take a peek at what the competition does and I do think we provide more depth and variety—very possibly more accuracy—in every area, not just the weather.” Sandi Duncan, the managing editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, explains that no one can own the words ‘farmers almanac.’ “It’s a type of publication that's been around for so long, so it’s a little confusing, but our Farmers’ Almanac and The Old Farmer’s Almanac are the two oldest and most consecutively published almanacs in the country,” she says. “There are people who try to pick up on the fame and fortune because everybody has an idea of what a farmers almanac is.” Still, the competition can have its upsides. “We are very different. We are a lot more family focused, we’re a lot more about natural remedies and natural living and greener living, so there is a difference,” Duncan adds. “We try to keep reminding people of which almanac we are. I still think there’s some confusion out there, but again, sometimes it's helpful for both of us.”

Old editions of the Farmer’s Almanac are on display in the museum at the publication’s headquarters in Lewiston, Maine. The 1818 cover was its first edition.

Both almanacs keep the traditions of their forebears alive. Both contain astrology in addition to the astronomical charts—and extensive recommendations on the best days each month to do everything from wean animals to quit smoking to when to cut one’s hair to encourage growth (not to be confused with the best days to cut one’s hair to discourage growth—the almanacs have separate dates for both). Because of the intermingling of science and pseudoscience, and because of the fact that they have been boasting of amazingly accurate weather predictions for more than 200 years, the genre has acquired a noisy contingent of skeptics. “Let me state emphatically that no one—with any degree of accuracy—can predict the specific days when cold snaps or storms will occur months in advance,” wrote The Washington Post’s weather editor, Jason Samenow in 2013. “If people think that these forecasts so far out are credible and they make a decision based on them and it turns out that the forecast is wrong, it hurts the credibility of all weather forecasts,” Samenow tells me, in a recent interview. “It’s basically selling snake oil, to an extent, and responsible weather forecasters like to be upfront about what we can reasonably predict and we can’t.” Jon M. Nese, an associate professor of meteorology and atmospheric science at Penn State, agrees: “Such forecasts are just another example of pseudoscience,” he says.

A weathervane in the Farmers’ Almanac Museum at its headquarters in Lewiston, Maine. Some time ago, the rooster became the unofficial mascot of the publication, and today a rooster with part of a weathervane graces the cover.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the Farmers’ Almanac have different approaches to weather prediction. The Farmers’ Almanac staff still keeps the methods of their weather predictor, the pseudonymous Caleb Weatherbee, secret. But the editors of Farmers’ Almanac say that their formula uses no satellite imagery or radar. Instead, it takes into account “things like sunspot activity, position of the Moon, and a variety of other mathematical and astronomical data into consideration,” according to the publication’s website. The OFA used to say it relied on a secret formula from Robert B. Thomas locked in a black box in its office. But these days, editors of the Old Farmer’s Almanac are a bit more open about their methods: they use climatology, meteorology and a study of sunspot activity, according to Stillman. The OFA forecasts deviations from averages—whether it will be colder, or wetter than normal, for example. Stillman says their forecaster, Michael Steinberg, tracks the predictions each year and calculates what percentage they got right. Geiger, editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, says his staff lets readers track their predictions and report back on how they did. Both claim about 80 percent accuracy. For fans of the almanac, the debates over the accuracy of the predictions may be beside the point. Or a part of the fun. “Years ago the media jumped on the almanac much quicker,” Geiger says. “Today, the media is so focused on the two or three topics a day”—the controversies and dramas, mostly emanating from Washington—that there’s less room for the lower-stakes debates we used to have about the weather.


 

From left, Colleen Quinnell, art director, Janice Stillman, editor, and Heidi Stonehill, senior editor, at lunch in the library at the Old Farmer’s Almanac offices.

In its time, the almanac was a Google of sorts: a mix of essential information, a predictive tool for the year ahead, and a source of diversion. Today, it’s still a source of useful information, especially where gardening and farming is concerned. But the broader appeal is its delightfulness, and its eclecticism. If you want to know how to grow pineapples in your living room, or how to use your chickens to help you garden, or find the best sweet potato recipes, the almanacs have you covered. If you’re into gardening, or, like a growing number of Americans, getting into astrology, they’ve got you covered too. Notably absent from both almanacs is a discussion of politics. “Even in the Civil War years, the WWI and WWII years, there was never anything mentioned about war, politics, anything,” Geiger says. “Our last political commentary was in 1824. We said Congress speaks too much and spends too much. We haven’t had to make a political comment since.” The lack of a partisan stance means that both almanacs tread lightly when it comes to climate change, one of the most politicized issues of our time. “I won’t get into the battle about global warming because I think it becomes a political debate,” Geiger says. (A 2009 article headlined, “Climate Change: Does it affect the Farmers’ Almanac Forecast?” by FA’s pseudonymous forecaster Caleb Weatherbee concludes, “[O]verall, the theories of climate change and global warming have not affected the way we make our forecasts.”)

Managing Editor Jack Burnett tells stories in his office at the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac editors also approach the issue delicately—their forecaster has written about how a period of low solar activity could be causing temperatures to cool, despite the evidence of a warming world—but the focus has been more on solar cycles than climate change. “We have not historically made recommendations [on the issue],” Stillman says. Such an approach might frustrate the broader scientific community, which has been clear that greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere are “extremely likely due to human activities.” And yet, the refusal of almanacs to make major forays into controversial subjects may be one of their biggest appeals. “[Readers] might argue about whether a cucumber is better for you than a banana. But people appreciate it,” Geiger says, because it’s a respite from the endless parade of controversies found in the media. I asked Stillman, the editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, whether she thinks the avoidance of discussion about politics is one of the keys to the Almanac’s ongoing success. “There’s a theory to this,” she says. It’s afternoon, and we’ve gone down to the General Store down the road for lunch—she’s put on a jacket over her fuzzy yellow cardigan. “In challenging times—I’m speaking a little bit politically—people turn to tradition, they turn to something that relieves them of all of that exposure.” It made me think of something that happened a few days before. At a New Year’s Day dinner with friends in Washington, D.C., where I live, I told them I was writing about farmers almanacs. To my surprise, some of my friends confessed that they loved the almanacs, and even followed their brands on Facebook. My friends are in their 20s and 30s, not exactly what you’d consider the prime demographic to be reading an almanac. Then again, maybe they are: they’re at-home gardeners and amateur chefs, new parents and homeowners, working to build fulfilling, meaningful lives, all of us living less than three miles from the White House. In the last year, it’s been a challenge to maintain normalcy in the midst of so much political turmoil. Now, reading through some fan mail at The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s office after lunch, it suddenly makes sense. “I just finished reading your special anniversary edition. Somehow, it seemed particularly encouraging to read about your traditions in this disturbing year,” one person writes. “It’s the way that, then and now,” Stillman says, “everything changes, but nothing really does.”

Stillman holds an Old Farmer’s Almanac thermometer in the sun outside her offices. The temperature read 57 degrees Fahrenheit. The Almanac’s website predicted that the high for that day would be just 39 degrees.

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