The Almanac Archive

2. Reading Time and Space in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain

On their title pages, nineteenth-century almanacs typically represented their contents as “useful” and “profitable," and as guides to time and space for their readers. In addition to a calendar of holidays and other days of note throughout the year, almanacs modelled a number of ways for their readers to measure time, and to synchronize their daily rhythms with those of the nation as a whole. Maureen Perkins has shown that early nineteenth-century almanacs represented time as an aspect of "communal memory," linked to forces of astrology and nature, and that the texture of time changed later in the century as almanacs became more purely statistical (12). But early nineteenth-century almanacs influenced the community of readers they addressed through lists of numbers and dates as well as later ones. Like Brian Maidment's work on the almanac, which focuses on the influence of features of almanacs that were not primarily predictive or astrological, the following discussion considers some ways in which the "useful" information of early nineteenth-century almanacs might have shaped their readers' narratives about time and space, sometimes as communal and homogeneous, and sometimes as varied and individualized (Maidment 94).

Table to calculate wages from Old Poor Robin, 1803
Figure 1: The "Table to calculate wages" from the 1803 edition of Old Poor Robin. Image courtesy of John W. Graham Library, Trinity College, University of Toronto.

One of the ostensible purposes of the almanac was to allow its readers to synchronize their clocks and diurnal rhythms with national time and, by extension, with each other. The calendar in each almanac indicated how the days of the month corresponded to the days of the week — with Sundays clearly indicated in red ink — and it also listed religious holidays, university term dates, occasions of national significance, and more. In addition, various tables included in most almanacs provided their readers with necessary information about when they could perform various civic activities: stock transfers days at the bank, dates when local courts were in session throughout the country, dates when the banks and public offices would be closed, etc. Many almanacs even included a “Table for Calculating Wages” over daily, weekly, and monthly periods, given a range of annual pay rates (Old Poor Robin 1803 7; see Figure 1). These tables suggest that matters of time were nationally uniform: bank hours, employment contracts, insurance policies, etc., were standardized and predetermined, rather than contractually negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Such connections between the almanac and state institutions lent the almanac's account of time an air of authoritative and created the impression that conforming to its schedules was advantageous, if not essential.

Because the Stationers' Company's state-sanctioned monopoly had long dominated the almanac trade, it is tempting to speculate that its almanacs' methods of synchronization were forms of social control. According to reformer Charles Knight of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, the almanac had enormous potential as a means of indoctrinating the public with coordinated ideas about time and space. He argued that the dissemination of useful and rigorously scientific almanacs could achieve that “union of interests and feelings which is the most solid foundation of public happiness” (Knight 64). Knight’s own publication, The British Almanac, was designed in 1828 to supplant the superstitious ideas of many Stationers’ Company publications. It includes information that he deemed useful and unifying but, as Perkins points out, in many ways the format and inclusions of Knight’s almanac are no different than many of those in other almanacs circulating at the time (54). Notes on term dates, transfer days, hours of sunlight, weather records, the equation of time, and historical events were all features of many almanacs before Knight's, and they all had the effect of harmonizing the rhythms and routines of their readers, and establishing the almanac as the authority on time.

One striking example of the almanac's authority comes from the trial for robbery of a Joseph Roberts in 1801, recorded in the proceedings of the Old Bailey. Roberts's landlady was called as a witness for Roberts. She reported that the accused was in his room all day on the day in question, but when asked what day of the month it was, the judge is reluctant to believe her: "What makes you say it was the 12th, more than any other day?" he asks. She replies that she overheard someone reading the date in a newspaper. When the judge asks, "How did reading the newspaper make you know it?", the witness replies, "I mean an almanack, not a newspaper" (Old Bailey Proceedings Online). The judge's questions suggest that for a working class woman like this witness, simply knowing the date is neither plausible nor sufficiently authoritative. The witness's answer is also telling: perhaps unsure about what kind of text she overheard (assuming that she was telling the truth) and realizing that a newspaper might not stipulate the date with sufficient authority, she recalls the almanac instead, more confident that it is a text that regulates time in the way the judge seems to want. In this example, deferring to almanac's authority about time is a matter of life and death, since this witness's confusion about the date appears to be one of the factors that led the judge to sentence Mr. Roberts to death.

Table to calculate wages from Old Poor Robin, 1803
Figure 2: Instructions for "Equation of Time" from the 1803 edition of Wing's Oλυμπια Δωματα. Image courtesy of John W. Graham Library, Trinity College, University of Toronto.

Although this example exhibits the early nineteenth-century almanac's authoritative (and potentially violent) command over time, some features of the almanac emphasize temporal relativity, and reveal the constructedness of the text's own claims of authority. In addition to the coordination of different readers’ diurnal and monthly rhythms permitted by the almanac’s calendar and tables, many included a page explicitly devoted to synchronizing one’s clock with national time. Vox Stellarum, for example, as well as Wing’s almanac (somewhat officiously titled by the Greek, Oλυμπια Δωματα), provided a table and a set of instructions for converting the time of the sundial to clock time, known as the "equation of time" (Figure 2). In Vox Stellarum, the compiler explains that “A Sun Dial shews Solar or Apparent Time; but a Clock, &c. Should be set to Equal or Mean Time; as the Table directs, to go true” (Vox Stellarum 1800 27). On the one hand, this description authoritatively specifies what kind of time is most “true”; on the other hand, however, the text’s undefined references to “apparent time,” “equal time” and “go[ing] true” also suggests that time is relative and that there are many different versions of it. The almanac's instructions suggest that each reader should set his or her clock to "equal time", but they also belie the apparent objectivity of the clock and the naturalness of the sun's timekeeping; as a result, even the almanac's statistical tables and instructions reveal the constructedness of communal timekeeping.

A similarly decentralized version of time was promulgated by many almanacs' representations of history. As we have already seen (in the first part of this exhibition), almanacs influenced their readers’ expectations about the future, but they also shaped their knowledge of the past. Most almanacs included a chronology of “remarkable occurrences” arranged as a series of events dated by the number of “years since” they occurred (see Figure 3). As Adam Smyth has noted, this format is explicitly teleological: “time is organized as a looking back from the present...over a series of events which, like waves, draw closer and closer” (211). In the edition of Old Poor Robin for 1803, for example, the execution of Charles I is listed as 154 “years since.” The edition for 1804 would presumably have dated this event to 155 “years since,” the 1805 edition to 156 “years since,” and so on. Because this chronology is oriented toward the readers of 1803, the effect for a modern reader — or for any reader looking back to older editions of these almanacs — is disorienting, since major historical events are represented relative to the year of the almanac’s publication, not to the absolute value of an historical date. These chronologies constitute the almanac's version of planned obsolescence: one would need to buy a new almanac each year to acquire an up-to-date chronology. Smyth argues that these chronologies, “encouraged [readers] to consider, construct and foreground their own relationship to temporality: to consider themselves...the point around which the almanac might be ordered” (214). While the almanac’s representation of the historical past may have encouraged the reader to perceive himself or herself as the ultimate point of reference for historical time, however, it did so at the expense of a communicable and collective historical narrative. That the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 is a more stable, more mnemonic, and more easily narrated historical fact than that it occurred 737 years before 1803, 745 years before 1811, and so on. It is interesting that this reader-centered account of history is also a negative construction of history, whereby the present is measured against the loss and increasing remoteness of the “remarkable occurrences” of the past, not based on the foundation of an accumulated series of important events. In this sense, contrary to the unifying and homogenizing effects of the almanac’s calendar, its representation of history was individual-centered and ephemeral.

Chronological Account of Remarkable Occurrences from Old Poor Robin 1803
Figure 3: The "Chronological Account of Remarkable Occurrences" from the 1803 edition of Old Poor Robin. Image courtesy of John W. Graham Library, Trinity College, University of Toronto.

In addition to representing time, almanacs also helped their readers to navigate national space in a variety of ways. The science of astrology is based on the relative positions of stars and planets at various times throughout the year. As a result, almanacs such as Partridge’s Merlinus Liberatus and Moore’s Vox Stellarum implicitly described space when they provided information about when different constellations or planets conjoined with other celestial bodies. Similarly, the tide tables providing times of high water at specific places, or charts about the southing of the moon — the precise time at which the moon is directly north or south of the viewer — emphasized the interconnectedness of time and space in influencing these variables.

Rider's British Merlin's description of roads in Great Britain 1776
Figure 4: Rider's British Merlin's description of the roads of Great Britain from 1776. Image courtesy of Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

In addition, some almanacs also described aspects of national space more overtly. In particular, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Rider’s British Merlin offered a list of the lengths of roads in England, and geographic descriptions of various countries and continents around the world (see Figure 3). Rider’s enumerates twenty-three roads in England in 1800, almost all of which begin in London. It also provides the distance between the origin and the end points of these roads (“Road from London to Berwick 339 1/2 measured Miles,” for example), as well as the distance from London at each of the towns along the way (Rider's British Merlin 1803 [35]). This representation suggests that all roads lead to London, the point of reference for the nation as a whole, and radiate out of the metropolis in different directions. Later in the century, after Rider's had ceased to include road descriptions like these, a similar model developed to project these vectors even further outward: in the 1842 edition of Vox Stellarum, for example, distances between earth and “different celestial objects” are provided by noting the powers of telescope needed to view each of them (Vox Stellarum 1842, 32), so that the almanac continues to represent space with reference to the position of the British observer.

It seems curious that Rider’s never provided these details in cartographic form, since it would likely have been easier to visualize the relative positions of the towns, countries and continents with the aid of a map than with these strictly verbal descriptions. However, nineteenth-century travellers needed to know the exact distances between towns far more urgently than their twenty-first century counterparts because resting and feeding one’s horses, or finding places to stop and spend the night, were crucial considerations. The almanac’s textual representation of British geography from this period was therefore likely to have been highly useful, but it must also have shaped its readers’ sense of space and geography in very particular ways. Most obviously, Rider's geographic paradigm prioritizes distance over direction, so that readers would know how far they were from any other town in England, but may have had very little sense of where these were cardinally located. Nonetheless, these representations of geography permitted inhabitants of Petersfield, Hampshire, for example, to place themselves 55.2 miles from London, 8.6 miles from the neighbouring town of Lippock, and, using some simple addition, 394.7 miles from Berwick, again emphasizing the referentiality of the particular reader, wherever his or her point of origin, unlike a representation (like a map) that places everyone in the nation at once and becomes a visual representation of the collective.

In addition to predictions and prognostications, early nineteenth-century almanacs provided data, tables, and lists that shaped their readers' sense of time (and also space) in very specific ways. While the most obvious effects of the almanac were the dissemination of authoritative calendars, schedules, and rules about time that synchronized the activities of civil society, the date, charts, and lists of early nineteenth-century almanacs must also have foregrounded the specific temporality and positions of their readers, even sometimes at the expense of unifying narratives about history, geography, or time.