Benjamin Franklin

Poor Richard’s Almanack

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Poor Richard’s Almanack Summary

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Written and published by Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack was a best-selling yearly miscellany that ran between 1732 and 1758. Franklin is now known primarily for being one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, but before he was a lauded statesman and inventor, he first came to prominence as a publisher and printer. Book publishing worked very differently in the eighteenth century: printers paid authors a set price for a manuscript, and then kept any profits from its publication. Many publishers wrote their own work to maximize profits, and one of the most popular types of printed material in the American colonies during the eighteenth century were almanacs – collections of random bits of entertainment that also featured calendars and weather predictions.

When Franklin was twenty-six, he put together the first Poor Richard’s Almanack under the pseudonym “Richard Saunders.” The Almanack ran for the next twenty-five years, with sales topping 10,000 copies a year, an enormous number for that time and place. (Quick note: Franklin’s work is spelled with a “k” in the title because spelling hadn’t yet been fully standardized in the eighteenth century, but the modern version of the word just ends in a “c”.)

The ostensible purpose of all almanacs was to provide a year’s worth of weather forecasts so that farmers would know when to plant and harvest their crops. Since there was really no way to accurately predict the weather in the eighteenth century, nothing seemed odd about claiming to be able to intuit what the year’s weather would bring.

But what made Poor Richard’s Almanack uniquely popular were all the other things Franklin inserted into the breaks between calendar pages and into the margins. There were poems and excerpts from inspirational literature, witty phrases and sayings, astrological and astronomical information (basically the same thing back then), lots of humor and wordplay, puzzles and math games, legal and medical information, recipes, trivia, and even ongoing digs at the publishers of competing almanacs. For example, there was a running joke where Poor Richard would predict the imminent death of a rival publisher.

Franklin’s work thrived because he approached the almanac, not as a prescriptive vehicle for moralizing, but instead, as a way to teach the growing middle class: people who were literate and interested in education, but could not afford to buy more than a very few books each year. Franklin calls his audience “middling people,” and styles Richard as one of them – a humble and “excessive poor” man who works very hard to try to save as much as possible. Using Richard as an authorial stand-in like this made the Almanack continually appealing to this readership even when Franklin himself became enormously wealthy.

At the same time, the same thing that made the Almanack so very popular – the fact that Franklin chose to reflect the norms and customs of his readers rather than trying to capture the new freedoms and philosophies arising from the Enlightenment – was criticized by some contemporary authors. Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville mocked the adopted aw-shucks tone of the Almanack and pointed out the hypocrisy of a worldly, well-traveled, deeply educated, powerful, and rich man like Franklin writing under the guise of a wise but provincial bumpkin. To a modern reader, some of the humor can come off as unpleasant, since part of what Franklin was reflecting was a general disrespect for women.

The most famous aspect of Poor Richard’s Almanack today are the sayings, adages, aphorisms, and proverbs that Franklin inserted into the margins around the rest of the entertainment inside. Almost none of these were actually written by Franklin. Rather, he combed through contemporary authors, such as the satiric poets Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Jonathan Swift, found bits of received wisdom that he thought would appeal to his audience, and then rewrote or reshaped them to suit his needs. To a modern reader, this seems like plagiarism, but the concept of intellectual property and its ownership would only become accepted a century later. Franklin himself famously allowed all the patents on his inventions to be used by anyone free of charge – he was a firm believer in the freedom of information.

Many of these maxims continue to live on in modern American English. In particular, we have saved ones that focus on frugality and thrift, on courtesy and fellow feeling, as well as ones that cast a gimlet eye on human nature and its foibles. Some of the most famous maxims that come from Poor Richard’s Almanack are:

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

No gains without pains.

Haste makes Waste.

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.

Speak little, do much.

A friend in need is a friend indeed!

Fish and Visitors stink in three days.

Do me the favor to deny me at once.

Make haste slowly.

A full belly makes a dull brain.

Well done is better than well said.

Have you somewhat to do tomorrow, do it today.

Reading makes a full man — Meditation a profound man — Discourse a clear man.

Poverty wants some things, Luxury many things, Avarice all things.

Half the Truth is often a great Lie.