“Matter Useful, Curious, and Entertaining”: the Almanac as Tool of Community-Building and Political Engagement

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2023
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Haverford College. Department of History
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Thesis
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Award
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eng
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Tri-College users only
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Abstract
For rural communities in 19th century America, almanacs were an integral part of daily life, yet they have received very little attention from historians. This thesis examines the ways in which almanacs functioned as a critical tool to disseminate news and contemporary political information to a physically isolated–and often socially cloistered–bloc. Every farmer needed an almanac, and for many families they were the only piece of print media in the house besides the Bible. This meant that they had unique reach and an inherent sense of authority and trustworthiness. Churches, political organizations, and advertisers all published almanacs as a tool of publicity and public engagement. I argue that almanacs are one of our most important textual sources, because they created community across multiple registers at a time when the concept of national identity often felt abstract and indistinct to people, especially those in rural enclaves. On the most immediate register, readers found community by sharing information they read in almanacs, subscribing to the same almanacs as others in their towns, and engaging with local printshops and reading clubs. These were collective intellectual spaces where reading, writing, and critical thinking occurred with an accessible presentation. On a middle register, they found community by reading almanacs that were specific to their own interests, that connected them to a non-contiguous web of like-minded readers scattered across the United States. These publications served as community spaces with peers the reader might never meet in person, strengthening their awareness of the invisible ties defining their identities. On the most expansive register, they found community through the state and federal political information that almanacs nearly always featured—times in different cities, election results, information on laws passed, taxation news, and more. Almanacs contextualized rural people within a larger community they could not otherwise see or access, and allowed them to imagine themselves as part of the burgeoning Republic.
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