Throughout Benjamin Franklin's long and distinguished life, he achieved success and notoriety as a printer, author, postmaster, inventor and scientist, statesman and diplomat, and sage. But perhaps the most memorable contribution Franklin made to Americana was Poor Richard's Almanack, which proved itself a brilliant success among its contemporaries and endures as a lasting legacy to the American ideals of morality, frugality, industry and humor.
Almanacs claimed the status of being the best-selling and most widely read secular books in the American colonies and for one reason—they told people what day it was. An almanac was primarily a calendar. Additional entries ranged from information about sunrise, sunset, moon phases and tides to weather forecasts; important dates for holidays, public meetings, court appearances, and social events; tips for farming and husbandry; and medicinal remedies. Some almanac makers provided general knowledge to educate and enlighten their readers while others included amusing anecdotes, poems, and other literary entertainments.
Samuel Atkins published the first almanac in Pennsylvania for 1686. By the early 1730s, several competing almanacs were published in Philadelphia, including two printed by Benjamin Franklin and Hugh Meredith. However, printers paid for almanac makers' predictions. Franklin reasoned that it would be more profitable if he wrote his own almanac, so in 1733 he began a 25-year run of one of the most popular almanacs in the American colonies.
As his pseudonym, Franklin gave birth to Poor Richard Saunders, a 'self-proclaimed penniless purveyor of prognostications,' to become the unwitting author of his almanac. Franklin merged the names and ideas of two contemporary almanacs published in England. Richard Saunder produced the Apollo Anglicanus: The English Apollo, an almanac for the serious intellectual. Poor Robin, on the other hand, catered to the middle classes and was popular for its comic dialogue and satirical commentary. Franklin also borrowed from his brother James, who used the name "Poor Robin" in his Rhode Island Almanack. By fusing together elements of these and other almanacs, Franklin created Poor Richard's Almanack, a publication that was unique, informative, and entertaining.
Poor Richard's arrival in Philadelphia created quite a spectacle. Franklin recognized Titan Leeds' An American Almanack as his toughest competitor. To insure the success of Poor Richard, Franklin borrowed a prank from Jonathan Swift that was sure to whet the appetite of almanac consumers. In the preface of the 1733 edition, Poor Richard proclaimed the 'death' of Titan Leeds. Franklin jested that though the two quibbled as to the predicted date of Leeds' death, thereby mocking astrological predictions that were the cornerstones of almanacs, Poor Richard felt "...free to take up the Task, and request a share of the publick Encouragement" upon Leeds' death. The following year, the indignant Leeds followed Franklin's impudence with a harangue of his own, claiming Poor Richard as "a Fool, and a Lyar." Franklin responded by reporting that Leeds was "...too well bred to use any Man so indecently and so scurrilously" and therefore must be dead, his almanac published by an imposter. Poor Richard was duty-bound to continue in spite of his dear friend's demise. Franklin surpassed his aim. At five pence a copy, the premier edition of Poor Richard's Almanack sold out in two days. Franklin printed three runs of the almanac just to meet the demand.
Franklin introduced other characters in his prefaces, such as Richard's "excessive proud" priggish wife Bridget, who complained in 1738 that she cannot "have a little Fault or two, but all the Country must see it in print!" She re-wrote his predictions, improving them to include "some fair, pleasant, sunshiny, &c. for the Good-Women to dry their Clothes in."
"The Printer" became Poor Dick's occasional scapegoat, the joke being that Franklin himself was the printer. Fellow almanac makers challenged Franklin to own Richard Saunders as his fictional creation. In the 1736 preface, Poor Richard staunchly denied this accusation, proclaiming he would not be successful "if it had not been for the sake of my Printer, to whom my Enemies are pleased to ascribe my Productions; and who it seems is as unwilling to father my Offspring, as I am to lose the Credit of it." Franklin obviously found this ruse delightful as he returned to it again and again.
Such pranks provided lively dialogue in some prefaces, but what proved to be the almanac's legacy was the use of maxims and proverbs as fillers. Poor Richard's maxims became known throughout the colonies and he offered an opinion on every topic imaginable. He ventured to give advice on what qualities to look for in a mate with Bridget Saunders as his model. And he was equally kind and unkind to both sexes. Of husbands he claimed, "One good husband is worth two good wives, for the scarcer things are, the more they're valued." Women's virtues, or lack thereof, were not above reproach. "When man and woman die, as poets sung/His heart's the last part moves, her last the tongue." He jested in the 1733 Almanack that he was "...an American Prince, without Subjects, his Wife being Viceroy over him," which illustrates that Franklin subscribed to the custom that a woman's place was in the home. William Pencak notes, "Franklin's women, like his men, had a vocation that they too could either follow or spurn. The best women found fulfillment as honored and respected helpmates of their husbands." Franklin's maxims about women found them rulers of the roost, but the men governed everywhere else.
Franklin declared open season on other professions. Doctors and lawyers were some of his favorite targets. He was obviously distrustful of doctors and their healing abilities, as in "There's more old Drunkards than old Doctors" and "God heals and the doctor takes the fee." Lawyers earned the moniker of scoundrel in Franklin's more famous maxims. "A countryman between two Lawyers, is like a fish between two cats" or "God works wonders now & then; Behold! a Lawyer, an honest Man!" Though facetious in nature, the underlying tone of these quips served as a warning to his readers to watch out for these unscrupulous rogues.
Franklin even poked fun at astrologers. He mocked competitor John Jerman in 1737 and again in this preface for 1739.
Ignorant Men wonder how we Astrologers fortell Weather so exactly, unless we deal with the old black Devil. Alas! 'tis as easy as pissing abed. For Instance; The Stargazer peeps at the Heavens thro' a long Glass:... He spies perhaps VIRGO (or the Virgin); she turns her Head round as it were to see if any body observ'd her; then crouching down gently, with her Hands on her Knees, she looks wistfully for a while right forward. He judges rightly what she's about: And having calculated the Distance and allow'd Time for it's Falling, finds that next Spring we shall have a fine April shower.
In time, Franklin changed course to focus on serious instruction in the true nature of astrology as in the 1745 preface and in defending the science of astrology in 1751, calling the misuse of astrology "pseudoscience," it being used to predict "the best Time of cutting Corns, or gelding Pigs." Franklin's own immersion in the sciences coincides with this period of Poor Richard.
The majority of Franklin's maxims focus on the responsibility of a man to provide for his family, to be industrious and frugal and therefore, successful. These qualities would lead to a virtuous and prosperous life. As Helen Mondloch notes, "His verses urged hard work and prudent savings not only as a means of attaining security but as a path to virtue. Likewise, they condemned sloth, credit payments, and frivolous spending." Poor Richard's "Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise" and "There are no Gains, without Pains" are some of Franklin's most enduring lessons. He showed as much disdain for sloth and excess with "A fat kitchen makes a lean will" and "A rich rogue, is like a fat hog, who never does good til as dead as a log." Professor J.A. Leo Lemay, in an interview with Rosalind Remer, stated his belief that Franklin valued work over inheritance. "To be useful is much better than to be wealthy. He praised that from the very beginning to the end of his life." Franklin, according to his selections, displayed contempt for those of inherited wealth and privilege.
Franklin was as adamant in his instruction to save money as he was about earning it. As a young man in Philadelphia, he endured hardships as a result of his association with Sir Willliam Keith, governor of Pennsylvania and Franklin's would-be benefactor. Keith had promised to finance Franklin in his own printing business. However, Keith's penchant for extravagance prevented him from keeping this promise to Franklin and stranded him in London with no credit. Keith later died in debtor's prison. The maxims on debt such as "He that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing" and "Rather to go to Bed supperless than rise in Debt" demonstrate how strongly Franklin was influenced by his earlier experiences.
Franklin's critics accused him in later years of plagiarizing these verses. An 1860 issue of Historical Magazine includes a chart comparing Franklin's verses with their original sources. However, Mondloch states, "While Franklin never felt compelled to credit his sources by name—no doubt because the literary protocols of his day differed from our own—he did acknowledge his borrowings." He freely admitted in his autobiography that he borrowed them from "...the Wisdom of many Ages and Nations." Even earlier, in the 1746 edition of Poor Richard, Franklin confessed his alleged crimes. "I know as well as thee, that I am no poet born; and it is a trade I never learnt, nor indeed could learn.... Why then should I give my readers bad lines of my own, when good ones of other people's are so plenty?" In fact, almanac makers routinely reprinted the literary works of other authors. However, Franklin had a gift for reformulating these gems with a unique style reflecting his ingenious wit. As Green and Stallybrass note, "Ironically, many proverbs are remembered now only because of the fame of the 'Almanack-maker' Benjamin Franklin." Some of Franklin's best-known verses have become indelibly ingrained into the American vernacular.
The sources of Franklin's proverbs originated partly from his voluminous private library as well as from borrowed editions from friends and associates. Some of Franklin's favorite sources included James Howell's Lexicon Tetraglotton and Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs. Additionally, the works of Thomson, Swift, Dryden, Gay, Bacon, Aesop, Pope and others found themselves scattered throughout Poor Richard's pages.
Franklin's ideals did not always have a salubrious effect on authors of later eras. Some of his most outspoken 19th century critics included Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and Melville, all charging Franklin with shaping an America built on a foundation of strict morality and the acquisition of wealth at the expense of individual expression. Mondloch cites D.H. Lawrence as one of Franklin's harshest critics, Lawrence claiming that "'it has taken me many years and countless smarts to get out of that barbed wire moral enclosure that Poor Richard rigged up.'" While Mondloch acknowledges Lawrence's assessment of the effects of Poor Richard's adages on his contemporaries, she also argues that "Franklin brought comfort and inspiration to a populace in its infancy, one struggling to gain an economic foothold and a sense of self." Franklin's America was one of struggle and risk and one in which strong social and communal bonds were vital. He believed he had a duty to uplift the individual for the good of the community. He freely admitted in his autobiography that his goal was to influence his readership with these sayings, recollecting "...it was generally read, scarce any Neighbourhood in the Province being without it, I consider'd it as a proper Vehicle for conveying Instruction among the common People, who bought scarce any other Books." From his own humble beginnings, he rose to a position of prominence and success that he desired his compatriots to strive for and to achieve. Franklin's maxims reflect his determination to educate his neighbors to follow his model.
However, Franklin did not forget the witty verses that made the almanac initially successful. In 1739, he explained his motive for mixing comedy and morality in equal proportions.
In all the Dishes I have hitherto cook'd for thee, there is solid meat enough for thy Money. There are Scraps from the Table of Wisdom, that will if well digested, yield strong Nourishment to thy Mind. But squeamish Stomachs cannot eat without pickles; which 'tis true, are good for nothing else, but they provoke an appetite. The Vain Youth that reads my Almanack for the Sake of an idle Joke, will perhaps meet with a serious Reflection, that he may ever after be the better for.
Franklin's genius was to interweave the frivolous with the sublime, creating a mix that enticed his audience to want more.
In 1748, Franklin changed the name of the almanac to Poor Richard Improved, increasing the physical size, the amount of content and the price. The intellectual content and prescriptions for success also increased. In these later editions, Franklin fervently promoted his ideals of industry, morality and thrift. During this period of his life, Franklin was more involved in social and political activities. Mondloch cites Palmeri, noting "He credits Poor Richard Improved and the politically charged almanacs that succeeded it with shaping the 'idea of an American nation and the ideal hard-working citizen of that nation.'" Franklin treated subsequent almanacs as a primer to expound his prized virtues and to engage his readers in political discourse. Franklin is credited by some as providing the impetus for a generation who forged a new nation founded in part on the ideals that Poor Richard advanced.
Poor Richard's Almanack became Franklin's second most profitable work, the Pennsylvania Gazette being the first. Nor was the popularity of Franklin's almanac confined to Philadelphia. By the 1740s, Franklin marketed the almanac to other colonies from Boston to Charleston, selling ten thousand copies annually and providing Franklin with roughly one third of his income. In fact, Franklin's printing business was so profitable as to afford him the luxury of retiring from the daily operations at age 42.
In 1758, Franklin's civic obligations carried him to England, but not before he laid the almanac to rest. He concluded his quarter-century run of Poor Richard with a speech delivered at an auction by another fictitious character, "a plain clean old Man, with white Locks," Father Abraham. Franklin compiled many of the maxims from previous editions, recalling in his autobiography that "The bringing all these scatter'd Counsels thus into a Focus, enabled them to make greater Impression." And make an impression it did. Father Abraham's speech was republished separately under the title, The Way To Wealth, one of the most popular publications in nineteenth-century America. Franklin's treatise was reprinted in multiple editions and in several languages and distributed in America and around the world. Franklin became a celebrity in Europe, particularly France, where he was known as 'Bon Homme Richard.'
Franklin's impact on the almanac industry lasted well into the nineteenth century. Multiple almanacs with the name 'Poor Richard' or 'Franklin' in their titles were printed in several states, including New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, all attempting to capitalize on the popularity and success of Franklin's exceptional product. However, the content of these imitators lacked the 'character' of Poor Richard, famous for its playful prefaces, colorful characters and the maxims and sayings that made Franklin's almanac so appealing and so notably successful.
No one could seriously argue that Franklin's achievements throughout his long life were remarkable. He left a footprint on the American landscape that is unparalleled. Mondloch quotes Chris Looby on the impact of Poor Richard's Almanack, saying that Franklin's proverbs were "endlessly quoted and repeated over the years until they became the 'common sense' of millions of Americans... Franklin must be credited, therefore, with forming... a large part of the characteristic outlook and values of a burgeoning popular culture.'" Poor Richard remains Franklin's most influential contribution in terms of its longevity in American culture and its influence on the formulation of the American spirit. In 1756, Franklin restated his goal, "...with a view to the Improvement of thy Mind and thy Estate, I have constantly interspers'd... Moral Hints, Wise Sayings, and Maxims of Thrift, tending to impress the Benefits arising from Honesty, Sobriety, Industry and Frugality." Who better to express the indelible legacy left by Franklin and his almanac than the man himself, "...thy obliged Friend, Richard Saunders."
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- Green, James N., and Peter Stallybrass. Benjamin Franklin: Writer and Printer. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006.
- Horrocks, Thomas A. "Poor Richard's Offspring: Benjamin Franklin's Influence on the Almanac Trade in America" Harvard Library Bulletin 17:1-2 (2006): 41-46.
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- Mondloch, Helen. "Tang of the Soil: Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack." The World and I. 18:1 (2003): 156-167.
- Pencak, William. "Politics and Ideology in Poor Richard's Almanack." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography. 66:2(1992): 183-211.
- Remer, Rosalind. "Poor Richard's Influence." In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtue. 1:1 (2004): 24-31. 18 Feb. 2008 .
- Zall, Paul M. Benjamin Franklin's Humor. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2005.