June 6, 2020

In Defense of the Farmer’s Almanac.

Sometimes, astronomical information comes from the most unlikely of sources. I first started into a lifelong interest of astronomy as a kid, growing up in the backwoods of northern Maine. There, a pristine sky that would be the envy of any backyard astronomer awaited almost every night, right beyond my doorstep. But I soon found that my access to resources and information was limited; like so many subjects I became immersed in, I quickly devoured the half dozen out-dated books at my local library and desperately searched for more. I had heard of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines, but our local bookstore had yet to carry them.

I eagerly awaited the monthly column, (which still runs!) on astronomy in our local Bangor Daily News and clipped it out, saving it for reference… but what I needed was information. I needed to know the “what” and “when” of a particular eclipse or the local times that Saturn would rise for viewing. Keep in mind, this was well before the Internet was around to give us up-to-the-minute Tiger Woods updates; I remember when Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock did its close buzz by Earth in 1983 we all heard about it weeks later; contrast this with 2007, when my RSS feeder lit up with news of Comet Holmes brightening a thousand-fold and I could step out and observe it that night! These days, the information, (and dis-information) is there for anyone who has the patience to sift through it…

I did, however find a companion in an unlikely source; the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Founded in 1792, it’s the oldest continuously published Almanac in America. Doing last month’s post on Benjamin Banneker and his seminal works made me recall this gem. Not to be confused with the Farmer’s Almanac published since 1818 in Lewiston Maine, the Old Farmer’s Almanac provided a wealth of legends and lore interspersed with a healthy dose of astronomy. Sure, their climate tables and methods might be suspect, and their advice on such things as “sleeping in the light of a Full Moon causes pregnancy” may wax toward the astrological… but if you can take these bits of folk wisdom with a slice of whim, a fair amount of astronomical data and lore is to be had. Their eclipse and meteor shower tables were indispensable, and they were the only source of accurate rising and setting times to be had beyond harder to find (and expensive) nautical almanacs.

And, like everything else, it thrills me to no end that ye’ ole Farmer’s Almanac is now online. It may no longer be a mainstay along with Reader’s Digest as America’s favorite bathroom lit, but I still consult their online lunar phase and Moon names sections. The times have changed, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac has changed with them… and yes, indeed, they’re on Twitter!

We here at Astroguyz feel the Almanac(s) have gotten an unfair rep as of late and had to speak out. True, their long range weather forecasting methods may be a bit controversial, but I’ve seen “serious” astronomy websites that fare worse. Use of the Almanac harkens back to a simpler time, when observers actually consulted tables for their local ephemerides before stepping out…

*Cool bit of astronomical trivia:* did you know that Abraham Lincoln once used the Almanac as a trial lawyer to acquit his client? One can almost hear Honest Abe thunder, “But sir, how could you have seen the murder, as you stated, under a Full Moon, when the Almanac says it wasn’t yet even at First Quarter on the night in question?”

…Or that the Maine Farmer’s Almanac has been linked to the term “Blue Moon” entering our astronomical vernacular?

Those are only a few morsels; we’d love to hear more. Whatever the case, do give these oft overlooked Almanacs a fair shake. Sure, there’s much more information out there at your cyber-finger tips, both useful and otherwise, but few have such a storied history!


  1. [...] The Bangor Daily News ran one monthly column on astronomy by science writer Clair Wood, and the Farmer’s Almanac gave local rising and setting times for my [...]

  2. [...] and we often gleaned knowledge of the astronomical goings on for the year from the tables of the Farmer’s Almanac. I remember hearing of the close 0.0312 AU passage past the Earth of Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock in [...]

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