A Solstice Almanac Tale

We have just celebrated the Winter Solstice yesterday, Dec. 21st.  Today we look at the seasons of yore, specifically 1795 when the solstice was on the same date.  These are the Halcyon Days—the seven days preceding and following the Winter Solstice. This was when the Halcyon bird laid her eggs and the weather was usually calm.

December page from the New-England Almanack…1795. (Providence: Carter and Wilkinson, 1794)
Weather and seasons were more mysterious and unpredictable before 20th century meteorology. But there were those who endeavored to predict the weather and document the seasons for the benefit of the planting and harvesting of crops. Every gentleman farmer would be sure to have an almanac calculated to the closest meridian to their land. An almanac was the second document ever printed in New England, being the 1639 “Almanack Calculated for New England, by Mr. Pierce, Mariner.” Printed in Cambridge, Mass. No known copy of this imprint exists.
The first Rhode Island Almanac was calculated for Newport. The Rhode-Island Almanack. For the Year, 1728… was printed by James Franklin in Newport in 1727. It was the first year of printing in the colony and the Library of Congress holds the only known copy of that imprint. Franklin printed his visually stunning Perpetual Almanack in 1728. The R.I.H.S. holds the only known copy of this broadside.
The production of almanacs was also a heated business. Any colonial printer worth his salt printed an almanac, sometimes spelled almanack, every year.  The astronomical calculations were often provided by outside philomathmaticians, abbreviated as “Philo.”, meaning lover of learning. I recently found some delightful insight into the production of the Providence Almanac of 1795 in the Moses Brown Papers (MSS 313) by way of a letter sent by Elisha Thornton to Moses Brown (1738-1836), one of the four Brown brothers. Elisha Thornton (b. 1748 in Smithfield, R.I.) was the first native Rhode Island almanac maker.
Letter, Elisha Thorton to Moses Brown, 1794. [MSS 313]
“Beloved Friend,
And as I am finishing off my calculations for 94 and depending to furnish Wheeler from what passed, though I have not rc’d his positive answer. I wish thee, or son Obadiah; but thee in preference. As I want Carter also spoken with, who when I mentioned furnishing him, made no other objection than that of Wheeler’s having the same, and that it might be left to print different calculations. – I proposed varying them a little in the calculations, which I can do without any injustice. As we have different rules to calculate by, which make a few minutes odds, & he would naturally fill his up different from Wheeler. – Terms are agreed on between Wheeler & I. and I would furnish Carter with the Astronomical Calculations for 3 [?] Almanacs, and I want thee to send their answer.
NB my name is not to be sd
Smithfield 24 of 6th Mo, 1794
Elisha Thornton”
In this case “Wheeler” refers to Carter’s rival printer Bennett Wheeler (1756-1806) who worked in Providence from 1779-1804 and produced his own almanacs as Wheeler’s North American Calendar, or and Almanac…
“Carter” is John Carter (1745-1814) who originally printed on William Goddard’s press at Shakespeare’s Head in Providence, but by 1795 was in partnership with William Wilkinson in the firm of Carter & Wilkinson. Carter was born in Philadelphia and had apprenticed with Franklin and Hall. He came to Providence in 1767 to work with Sarah Goddard on the press her son William had abandoned the year before. Carter printed his first Providence almanac in 1768. Here is an image of the title page of Carter’s 1795 imprint:
Title page from the New-England Almanack…1795. (Providence: Carter and Wilkinson, 1794)
Thornton produced the calculations for the 1795 and 1796 editions of Carter & Wilkinson’s Almanacs. He had published almanacs under his own name in 1788, 1789 & 1790 and the Rhode-Island Almanack 1791-1794. In reference to the above letter, he is not known to have ever provided calculations for Bennett Wheeler–at least none that are attributed to him. Perhaps he did provide both printers with slightly altered information but only had his name listed for Carter & Wilkinson.
For more information on the history of almanacs consult my great uncle’s book on the topic, America and her Almanacs: Wit, Wisdom & Weather, 1639-1970. by Robb Sagendorph (Dublin, N.H:  Yankee, Inc., 1970. It is available here at the R.I.H.S. Research Center or at your local library.
~Phoebe Bean, Librarian, R.I.H.S.

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