Almanacs: The Smartphones of the Early Modern World

Francesco A. Morriello’s Messengers of Empire: Print and Revolution in the Atlantic World is the May volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book reveals how revolution shaped the circulation of information in the Atlantic world. In this blog post, Francesco A. Morriello discusses the parallels between today’s smartphones and the early modern equivalent, the almanac.

In the twenty-first century, one of the most common objects found in people’s pockets across the world is the smartphone, a technological device that allows one to communicate and remain connected with people as near or far as their mobile’s signal permits. These devices are capable of storing an abundance of information, such as addresses of important contacts, weather updates, exchange rates, and more. This desire for a compact, customizable device that can hold a broad range of information at an increasingly faster speed is not a new phenomenon, but one that can be traced to a much earlier period.

In the early modern world, one of the key ways people accessed information on a variety of different subjects related to daily life was the almanac, a pocket-sized book that was often carried on one’s person across the Atlantic world. While the postal system was the primary means of transmitting messages across the Atlantic Ocean, the almanac supplemented this communications system by providing people with information intended to facilitate daily life. Initially, the almanacs included detailed lists of notable figures in Europe and the Americas, such as monarchs, the nobility, and government and military officials. However, over time, these almanacs grew exponentially in size and detail, and began including interest rate charts, farming tips, mail collection schedules, lists of local figures, such as lawyers, merchants, Freemasons, and much more.

Messengers of Empire: Print and Revolution in the Atlantic World examines how information moved across the British and French Atlantic world during the early modern period, with a chapter focused specifically on almanacs and their significance in the history of print culture. Whilst there has been considerable scholarship on early modern newspapers during this period, there has been comparatively far less scholarship written on almanacs despite the breadth of information they provide.

In the seventeenth century, almanacs were largely printed and sold in Europe, with some of these books shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. However, with the introduction of the printing press in the Caribbean, these pocket books soon began to be produced locally. This was a significant change, as this allowed almanacs to be printed on an annual basis without having to wait months for shipments of almanacs from Europe. In a world that long predated the advent of electronic communications technologies, it is clear that there has always been an increasing demand for information that is more readily available.

Over the course of centuries, almanacs printed in the British and French Caribbean gradually became more detailed in terms of the information they offered. They also became increasingly customizable, with printers providing larger portions of blank pages to allow users to fill in whatever information they might find useful. In looking at almanacs printed for Barbados, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue, these forms of print material eventually transformed from slender pamphlets bearing calendars and moon cycles for farming purposes to leather-bound instruments that contained vast amounts of information regarding daily life. This included information pertaining to social networking, as well as blank pages for personal diary entries and notes, interest rate calculator charts, and instruction manuals, among many others.

The customizable aspect of almanacs provides an interesting look at what information was important to people living in the early modern period. Among these were illustrations and descriptions of plants, including their medicinal and practical uses. Another was a flag chart that was hand painted to accurately identify the flag designs and names of the packet ships used in regular mail service between Europe, America, and the Caribbean. The contents of a different almanac revealed that these books were not just read by individual people but by their whole families, as children would use them as a learning aid to practise writing the alphabet.

As the conflicts of the American and French Revolutionary Wars unfolded across the North American theatre, the Caribbean almanacs began to feature even more customizable aspects to fit the needs of the user, much like modern day apps. This broadened their appeal to wider social groups, including religious congregations, freemasons, and merchants. In the process, these pocketbooks developed into encyclopaedic works that began to feature increasingly comprehensive indexes, which provided their users with even faster access to the information they desired.

Almanacs bore additional parallels with modern smartphones in terms of their physical design. These books were small enough to fit in one’s coat pockets, so they could be carried anywhere and accessed for a myriad of uses, even if it was just to write down an address or work out a calculation. They also featured a flap to protect their contents, which was designed to look like an envelope flap. This latter feature could be viewed as a metaphor for the importance that was placed on these books, as they were seen as indispensable instruments that allowed people to remain connected with the wider world around them. And just like modern cell phones, they were replaced each year with more sophisticated models, containing even more information.

— Francesco A. Morriello

Messengers of Empire: Print and Revolution in the Atlantic World is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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