On This Day: The Birth of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack’

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about one of Benjamin Franklin’s greatest creations: “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Benjamin Franklin. Founding Father, diplomat, scientist, inventor, politician, publisher, and author. One of Franklin’s legacies is his publication Poor Richard’s Almanack [Almanac]. The first edition of this annual work was published on 19 December 1732 and continued on for the next 25 years. (1) Franklin’s almanac was written under the nom de plume Richard Saunders, or “Poor Richard.” Although it wasn’t the first almanac printed in the United States (that honor goes to the 1639 almanac published by William Pierce of Harvard College), it was immensely popular, selling up to 10,000 copies each year. (2)

Photo: 1739 edition of “Poor Richard's Almanack”
Photo: 1739 edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” Credit: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Poor Richard’s Almanack

What is an almanac? Google defines it as “an annual calendar containing important dates and statistical information such as astronomical data and tide tables.” (3) When I think of an almanac, I tend to think of weather predictions and when to plant crops.

Franklin’s Almanack had some of that information and more. What information was in the first editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack? This advertisement from the Weekly Rehearsal gives a synopsis of the second edition, for the year 1734:

“An ALMANACK containing the Lunations, Eclipses, Planets Motions and Aspects, Weather, Sun and Moon’s Rising and Setting, High-water, &c. Besides many Pleasant and Witty Verses, Jests and notable Sayings.”

An ad for "Poor Richard's Almanack," Weekly Rehearsal newspaper advertisement 17 December 1733
Weekly Rehearsal (Boston, Massachusetts), 17 December 1733, page 2

The Almanack was a combination of Franklin’s wit and sarcasm, as well as practical information and probably what he is most remembered for: proverbs.

An ad for "Poor Richard's Almanack," Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 29 December 1747
Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 December 1747, page 2

One of the most familiar proverbs is found in the 1735 edition of the Almanack:

“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” (4)

That’s just one of the sayings colonial readers learned from Franklin. Others include:

  • Fish and visitors stink in three days (1736)
  • The noblest question in the world is, What good may I do in it? (1737)
  • Beware of little expenses, a small leak will sink a great ship (1745)
  • Lost time is never found again (1748) (5)

Some of the proverbs found in the Almanack seem antiquated and confusing to modern readers, but others remain popular, and the wisdom of Franklin continues to be quoted to this day – as evidenced by this “Dear Abby” article that relates the “fish and visitors stink in three days” saying to an in-law’s extended stay.

A "Dear Abby" column, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 28 September 2003
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 28 September 2003, page 120

While some of the Almanack’s content is humorous and written with Franklin’s tongue firmly planted in his cheek, there was content published that would be of interest to historians and genealogists. Consider the 1750 edition that included population figures, serving as an early census. My favorite part of the demographics presented is the table with statistics for those in the burying grounds of Philadelphia, which includes African American burials. You can see a transcription of this material and demographic tables on the National Archives website.

An article about "Poor Richard's Almanack," Boston Evening-Post newspaper article 5 February 1750
Boston Evening-Post (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 February 1750, page 1

Poor Richard and Beyond

After 1758 Benjamin Franklin ceased printing his Almanack, forgoing its publication to pursue his other interests in fields like science and diplomatic relations, until his death in 1790. (6) His Almanack was reissued and published for 25 years starting in 1850, mirroring its original run. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1792, placed Franklin’s portrait on their cover in 1851 as a nod to his role as the “father of modern almanacs,” where his image remains to this day on each annual almanac. (7) The Old Farmer’s Almanac continues to be published and has traversed the modern era with a website.

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(1) There is some dispute about the date of first publication; some sources cite 28 December 1732. However, the date of 19 December 1732 is reported by the Benjamin Franklin Historical Society, among other authorities.
(2) “Poor Richard’s Almanak,” Benjamin Franklin Historical Society (http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/poor-richards-almanac/: accessed 3 December 2018).
(3) “Almanac,” Google (https://www.google.com/search?q=definition+of+an+almanac&oq=definition+of+an+alman&aqs=chrome.0.0j69i57j0l4.4112j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8: accessed 6 December 2018).
(4) “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/poorrichardsalma00fran_0/page/78: accessed 3 December 2018).
(5) Ibid.
(6) “Poor Richard’s Almanack is Published,” History (https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/poor-richards-almanack-is-published: accessed 6 December 2018).
(7) “Engravings in the Old Farmer’s Almanac: Front Cover. History of the Almanac’s Cover,” The Old Farmer’s Almanac (https://www.almanac.com/content/engravings-old-farmers-almanac-front-cover: accessed 6 December 2018).

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