At their simplest, almanacs were calendars: regularly (usually but not necessarily annually) published tabulations of days, weeks and months. Even the simplest calendars, however, do more than name and number days—at the very least, they mark out public holidays and other significant events.
At their most sophisticated, almanacs went much further, to the point where the conventional calendar was a relatively minor element. Late 19th- and early 20th-century almanacs, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, were substantial compendia of ‘useful information’—directories of the civil and ecclesiastical establishments, tabulations of postal and transport fares and timetables, advertisements, the full text of significant laws and regulations, historical and geographical information (often in the form of substantial essays) and, most importantly, tide tables and climate data that offered a basis for weather prediction. Until the development of scientific meteorology in the late 19th century, almanacs delivered forecasts built on traditional astrology overlaid with scraps of data from previous years. Limited as it was, the value of such basic information in a remote and alien environment, with a heavy reliance on sea transport, cannot be overstated.
A calendar that marks significant days— whether recording anniversaries of past events or advertising forthcoming ones—speaks volumes about what its compiler and its readers regard as significant. Many almanacs provided abundant blank space to enable readers to record their own observations, with the result that many of the surviving copies have a manuscript element that transforms them into unique collaborative works, standing at the intersection of the printed book and the private diary. A 21st-century reader who imagines approaching an almanac as a 19th-century one enters an alien landscape, in which communication is slower, information more sparse and supply lines more fragile.
The first book-length non-government publication in Australia was George Howe’s New South Wales Pocket Almanack (1806). Howe took an innovative approach to defining Antipodean seasons: instead of the astrological methods in use in English almanacs of the time, which identified the beginning of a season as the precise moment when the sun entered the appropriate zodiac sign, Howe simply nominated three months for each season, so that Spring ran from September to November, Summer from December to February, and so on. This approach did not gain immediate general acceptance, and Howe soon reverted to the comforting familiarity of the zodiac. By the 1830s, however, astrological content was becoming muted, and it is generally true that, in contrast to most of their British and American counterparts, colonial Australasian almanacs were more inclined to promote an empirical, scientific world-view than to indulge popular superstitions, and influenced such rationalistic British publishers as Charles Knight and Joseph Whitaker.
With their annual publication pattern, almanacs had little direct engagement with current affairs. They nonetheless played a critical role in developing a sense of community and shared identity, and arguably in solidifying the authority of key social institutions. Many of the earliest and most influential were issued by newspaper proprietors, including Howe and the Hobart publishers Andrew Bent and James Ross, and their successors. The original essays and illustrations published in these early almanacs remain important primary sources.
In most of the colonies, one or two book almanacs dominated the market and became standard quasi-official reference sources: Walch’s Tasmanian Almanac (1862–1979) was by far the longest running. Pugh’s Queensland Almanac (1859–1927) and Moore’s Almanack and Hand Book (Sydney, 1852–1940) were the dominant publications in their respective markets. The longest running South Australian almanac was the German-language Australischer Volks–Kalender (1866–1914). The two leading Melbourne publications—the Victorian Almanac (1859–1927) and Clarson, Shallard & Co.’s (later A.H. Massina & Co.’s) Weather Almanac (1864–1940)—served as templates for a host of regional almanacs, mostly issued by local newspapers or business owners as promotional exercises. J. Harcourt Giddons’ meteorological almanacs (commenced in Port Adelaide, 1899, later published in Adelaide and Sydney) continued until 1941 under various titles, and were unusual in attempting to appeal to a nationwide market.
Sheet almanacs, designed for hanging or wall display, were usually published as newspaper supplements. Like their book-format counterparts, they were so pervasive that their effects on popular culture are incalculable. One iconic newspaper image, the Australasian Sketcher’s depiction of the battle between the Kelly Gang and Victorian police at Glenrowan (17 July 1880), features amongst other mundane domes- tic details a sheet almanac attached to a wall.
The evidence for edition sizes is sketchy, largely reliant on the claims of advertisements and prospectuses, and moderated by the evidence for other contemporaneous publications. Early Sydney and Hobart almanacs—constrained, apart from anything else, by the availability of paper—may have been published in editions as small as a few dozen. By the 1860s, publishers in the major centres were claiming circulations of 10,000 or more.
By the early 20th century, a number of factors were lessening the importance of the almanac to everyday life. In particular, the radio and the telephone directory were meeting commonplace information needs in new and much more timely ways. Official yearbooks were supplying authoritative statistical data. The few new titles published during the 1930s (such as The ‘Aspro’ Year Book, 1933–40) were promotional tools for particular companies or products. University calendars, a specialised sub-set produced for a niche market, have persisted into the 21st century, moving to electronic publication.
Of the great mass-market 19th-century almanacs, only Walch’s continued beyond World War II. In his introduction to the 1962 ‘centenary’ issue, R.F. Walch presented his almanac as integral to ‘the life of the community ... truly Tasmanian’, and expressed his hopes for ‘the achievement of the bi-centenary if the lessons learned to date can be preserved and respected in the future’, but acknowledged the ‘tremendous amount of work and cooperation’ involved in its production. The commitment became increasingly difficult to justify as other sources of information proliferated, and Walch’s ceased publication at the end of the following decade.
REFs: I. Morrison, M. Perkins and T. Caulfield, Australian Almanacs 1806–1930 (2003); M. Perkins, Visions of the Future (1996).