Filled with proverbs preaching positive virtues such as industry and prudence, Poor Richard’s Almanack debuted on this day in 1732 and was published yearly until 1757. It became one of the most popular publications in colonial America, selling an average of 10,000 copies a year. In addition to its homilies, the almanac offered seasonal weather forecasts, Heloise-style household hints, puzzles, and various other diversions.
Poor Richard, who was of course Benjamin Franklin, was modeled in part on Jonathan Swift’s Isaac Bickerstaff, a self-described philomath and astrologer who in a series of letters in 1708 and 1709, poked fun at and even predicted the imminent death of another astrologer and almanac maker, John Partridge. Franklin’s Poor Richard followed suit and, in a running joke in the early editions, predicted and falsely reported the deaths of contemporary astrologers and almanac makers.
Poor Richard’s Almanack extolled a list of 13 virtues to live by – temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility – although there’s no evidence that Franklin personally tried to practice any of them. (Wretched Richard subscribes to every one of them.)
Reflecting on Franklin and his almanac, James Russell Lowell wrote that Franklin: “was born in Boston, and invented being struck with lightning and printing and the Franklin medal, and that he had to move to Philadelphia because great men were so plenty in Boston that he had no chance, and that he revenged himself on his native town by saddling it with the Franklin stove, and that he discovered the almanac, and that a penny saved is a penny lost, or something of the kind.”
The Almanack gained worldwide attention: Napoleon Bonaparte had it translated into Italian; it was twice translated into French, reprinted in Great Britain in broadside, and was the first work of English literature to be translated into Slovene.
A sample of Poor Richard’s wisdom:
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
There cannot be good living where there is not good drinking.
Any society that will give up a little liberty for a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
With the old Almanack and the old Year,
Leave thy old Vices, tho ever so dear.
Fish and visitors stink after three days.
There are more old drunkards than old doctors.