The Children’s Almanac 1879-83

   Posted by: rring   in Americana, Classes, Students

[Posted by Mollie Scheerer ’14 for AMST 838/438 “America Collects Itself”]

IMG_7725Ella Farman’s The Children’s Almanac for the years 1879-1883 is a beautiful, small book with a green cloth cover, embossed illustration, and gilt lettering on the cover. American almanacs are annual publications containing information such as weather forecasts, tide tables, planting and harvesting dates for farmers, astronomical information, and religious holidays. This almanac, however, is slightly different. It contains only eighty pages as opposed to most almanacs of the same time that could have many more. Farman’s almanac is also more of an anthology of poetry to interest the children reading it.

On the first page inside is an inscription reading “Willie R. Witherle, Dec 25th, 1878,” either a dedication or the signature of the owner. Opposite the title page is a beautiful lithograph of a young girl seated by a window reading to her dolls with a short phrase below: “Good little heart maketh gay the dark and stormy winter day.” The almanac is filled with phrases such as this in order to instill good morals in children. The book was published by D. Lothrop and Company in Boston and very much embodies the New England values of the late nineteenth century for the middle and upper classes. In Farman’s author’s note, she discloses the purpose of the almanac: a “little everyday book designed for a handy pocket reference and school-desk companion.” She intended for it to be a way children could learn and be reminded of the morals with which they were brought up.
IMG_7727Just like an “adult” almanac, Farman divides hers into months for the years 1879 through 1883 almost as chapters, although she makes it a more appealing and interesting almanac as her audience is children. After the author’s note is a list of the original poets whose work Farman includes in the order in which they appear. Each month has its short own poem written by well-known literary figures such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Celia Thaxter, and J. T. Trowbridge. A unique component to these poems is that their signatures are included at the end. The colorful lithographs that separate each season are beautifully detailed and Farman also includes intricate steel plate etchings for every month done by the engraver W.J. Dana in Boston. All illustrations depict happy children in various seasonal situations to engage children reading the almanac.
Beginning January is a poem by Longfellow opposite a detailed engraving of a young boy and girl happily sledding down a snowy hill on a toboggan. On the next page are simplistic calendars for each year between 1879 and 1883 as references for the young minds for whom she wrote the almanac. Opposite the calendars are the “Daily Conduct-Mottoes” to which she referenced in her author’s note. For every day of January Farman includes a short phrase by important literary figures, some of whom also wrote the poems in the almanac. Farman wrote that she hopes the children will take heed of their Birthday-Motto but also pay attention to their Daily Conduct-Motto as an everyday reminder of how they should live their lives. She hopes they will keep these mottoes in mind each day in order to become as strong and true as the grandest men and women they can think of. She says, “Read it, hold it up high in your thoughts, and honor it in your deeds.”   After the Conduct-Mottoes there is a blank page entitled Memorandia: Studies for the School Year for the children to keep their own thoughts and notes. With this, they can contribute to the almanac and perhaps be inspired by the poems or mottoes and write their own.
My favorite monthly poem in the almanac is by Celia Thaxter for the month of August. Opposite a tranquil etching of a young girl washing her feet in a pool of water surrounded by cattails, Thaxter writes,
“Buttercup nodded and said, “good-bye!”
Clover and daisy went off together,
But the fragrant water-lilies lie
Yet moored in the golden August weather.
The swallows chatter about their flight,
The cricket chirps like a rare good fellow,
The asters twinkle in clusters bright,
While the corn grows ripe and the apples mellow.”
The poem perfectly embodies the month of August and the gentle language is appealing to children of every age.
Each month is unique and the different messages and etchings are interesting. February’s poem is by Mrs. A.D.T. Whitney with a magnificent engraving of a little girl curled up by a window surrounded by icicles with five birds on a branch below. Every engraving, poem, and lithograph relate to the month or season they are in. On the next pages are the calendars and mottoes, as with every month. Since my birthday is in February I paid special attention to the mottoes. As an example of one of the mottoes, my birthdate, February 17th, has a Longfellow quote: “Here’s a fellow who can both write and fight!” (I’d like to think so, Longfellow.)
The lithographs after March, June, and September also contain phrases to instill children with the values they need to grow into strong and true men and women, of course reflecting the transition between seasons. The lithograph between June and July reads, “Never be idle, never be sad / Go in the sunshine and grow glad!” and depicts a small girl having a tea party with dolls, embodying the ideal summer afternoon for the target audience. The detailing of the lithographs is exquisite; they seem to glow as the carefully placed ink radiates the light off the page. Although the etchings are equally as detailed, the lithographs stand out in this almanac and would have certainly captured the children’s eyes.
This almanac truly embodies the Victorian Era in America as it teaches children (of the middle and upper classes, of course) to uphold the moralities of the period. The advice, poems, and drawings are quite darling and the almanac, as Farman so intended, would have been the perfect book to store in a pocket or desk for daily reminders of these values. The children in possession of this almanac could certainly relate to the children depicted in the etchings and lithographs, as well as take pleasure in finding their birthday and the associated motto which they would hopefully, as intended, adhere to for all their lives.
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