IT WAS A CLEAR AND MOONLIT NIGHT, claimed the witness, and shortly before midnight he saw the defendant load a rock into his slingshot, take aim, and strike his victim right above the eye, killing him.
An excited buzz went up from the courtroom at this testimony; now it was up to the accused man’s lawyer, a tall, gangly man dressed all in black, as lawyers often did in the mid-1800s, to refute this testimony. A look of puzzlement settled over the gaunt attorney’s face as he approached the jury box, holding up a book with which they were all familiar.
The witness for the prosecution, he reminded the jury, had just sworn under oath that he could see everything in detail that night, since the moon was overhead, illuminating the fields below. Yet according to the book he held in his hand, explained the lawyer, that couldn’t have happened; the woods would have been pitch black all night, as the moon was in its first quarter, and had set shortly before midnight, more precisely, at 11:57 p.m.
You can just picture the ensuing scene: the courtroom in uproar, the witness suddenly pale, hoist on his own lie.
There was no point disputing the evidence; the publication the lawyer was holding up was “The Old Farmer’s Almanac.”
EVERYONE IN THAT RURAL courtroom of 1858 knew the almanac; even then, it was the oldest publication in the country, having survived countless other almanacs, newspapers, magazines and fliers that had come and gone over the preceding century. In agrarian America, it was a sectarian Bible; there seemed no end to the needs it served.
Farmers consulted it for tips on harvesting and planting. Sailors read it to determine the rise and fall of tides. Housewives pored over beauty tips and recipes.
Physicians carried it with them, to know the most efficacious times of month for leeching afflicted patients.
In a time predating sitcoms, talk shows, or docudramas, the Old Farmer’s Almanac provided insight, wisdom and entertainment for the entire family. But if one had stood on the sidewalks of any town in America and asked passers-by why they read the almanac, the most frequent answer given would have been, “Why, to know the weather, of course.”
Thus, based on the data provided in the periodical’s 1857 edition, the defendant Duff Armstrong was acquitted and went on to live out his life among his peers along the banks of the Sangamon River, in Illinois. The lawyer, an unprepossessing man named Abraham Lincoln, vaulted to new renown on the strength of his victory in court, and went on to become president of the United States. And the Old Farmer’s Almanac? It just went on and on and on.
This year, it marks its 200th anniversary; it’s still the oldest, and one of the most successful, publications in this country’s history, with 1992 sales of 7 million copies, or almost five times the circulation of Life (1.5 million), and twice that of Playboy (3.4 million).
Today, as it has for two centuries, it dispenses humor, aphorisms, rhyme, while pulling no punches. Readers turn to it for guidance, for reassurance, for entertainment, and to know whether to wear their galoshes to the office.
As to why the almanac has survived 41 U.S. presidents, eight wars, and 10 score orbits of the earth around the sun, editor Jud Hale answers, “It may be continuity; we’ve had only 12 editors in 200 years. It may be the accuracy of our weather prognostications. Or it may be the association with famous events like Lincoln’s defense of Armstrong. But the truth is, I really don’t know why.
“I believe we’re a link to something,” he continues. “The almanac has always done well in times of recession. I think people hearken back to the traditional values in times of a crunch.” A normally waggish sort, Hale turns grumpy at the slightest suggestion that the periodical’s appeal is rooted in nostalgia or trivia. “The Old Farmer’s Almanac isn’t `quaint,’ ” he insists. “It’s all about what’s happening in our world, now. It’s as up-to-date today as it was 200 years ago.”
Still, there is something almost mythic about the very name, “Old Farmer’s Almanac.” It resonates the kind of integrity of which one might say money can’t buy. Only today, it can. There’s nothing quaint about the clout the Old Farmer’s Almanac possesses.
As the Old Farmer’s Almanac enters its third century, growing numbers of products, from rakes to pancake flour, are appearing on the market bearing the periodical’s imprimatur. And in an electronic age, when the overwhelming majority of Americans are more familiar with boardrooms than barnyards, when the weather reports are broadcast two or three times an hour, when old-fashioned virtues are conceded to be going the way of buckboards, the Old Farmer’s Almanac’s grip on the imagination of Americans seems to grow stronger with each passing year.