“Poor Richard’s Almanack”: The Repository for Ben Franklin’s Witty Sayings and Dad Jokes
If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, he would probably be a popular social media influencer. His tweets and posts would likely be filled with clever quotes, kernels of advice, fun facts, social and political observations, witty comments about the weather, and dad jokes. What makes us say this? Because this is exactly what Franklin did in his lifetime, using the only social media vehicle available to him in 1700s colonial America … the printing press. Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack was published once a year, beginning on December 19, 1732, and continued to be for the next 25 years. With average annual sales of 10,000 copies, Poor Richard’s Almanack was the most popular publication in colonial America and one of the most widely read non-secular books. What made Poor Richard’s Almanack so special? Let’s find out.
Ben Franklin, a Jack of All Trades
Benjamin Franklin, who was born in Boston in 1706, well before the founding of the United States, dabbled in many areas. He was a true Renaissance Man and a jack of all trades. He was just 12 years old when he apprenticed at his brother’s print shop where he learned the ins and outs of printing, book publishing, the newspaper business, and writing. But throughout his adulthood, he added skills to his arsenal and careers to his resume. He was a scientist, statesman, naturalist, inventor, scholar, astronomer, currency printer, educator, diplomat, postal worker, firefighter, politician, and businessman. He was one of the leading intellectuals of the 1700s, well-traveled, and a keen observer. Franklin was called on to help when the United States was being formed. He was a Founding Father and one of the men who drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Almanacs, a Popular Genre of the Day
In the 1700s, almanacs (or almanacks, to use Franklin’s spelling) were one of the most popular book genres in the American colonies and in England. Basically, an almanac was a publication that was printed once a year and contained vital information on a variety of topics that were important to farmers, fishermen, and others. An almanac had weather forecasts for the entire year, charts to show the movement of the tides, planting dates for farmers, and astronomical information, like sunrise and sunset times, full moons, and eclipses. Most of this information is now immediately available to us on our cell phones. In publication form in the 1700s, the information could be months old or blatantly inaccurate, but this was all they had to go on.
Almanacs also contained statistics and demographic information from the previous year, such as populations. It may also have included major news stories from the previous year.
Ben Franklin’s Pen Names
Benjamin Franklin wrote and published a lot more than one might think. That’s because he was fond of using pen names so that the public – and probably his brother, the print shop owner – didn’t know he was the true author. In fact, historians have identified 32 pen names that Franklin used throughout his life. He not only created pseudonyms, but he invented plausible backstories for many of them so that his writings looked like they were penned by both men and women and people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, and different nationalities. Poor Richard of Poor Richard’s Almanack was one.
When he started his almanac, Franklin borrowed (or stole, depending on who you ask) the name Richard Saunders. The real Richard Saunders was a British astrologer and physician. He started writing and publishing an almanac, Rider’s British Merlin, in 1626 under a pen name of his own, Cardanus Rider, an anagram of his true name. Franklin borrowed (or stole) the “poor” part from yet another British almanac, Poor Robin. The result was the name Poor Richard’s Almanack, which was written and published by Franklin under the pen name of Richard Saunders.
An Almanac for All
Benjamin Franklin’s experience in the printing industry showed him that books were a luxury item that too many families in colonial America could not afford. But even the poorest family splurged on an almanac because the information was important to the success of their farm. In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin sought to offer a publication that would be useful to all members of the family. He believed that an almanac could bring literature to the masses. So, he included poems and short stories in Poor Richard’s Almanac. He added recipes, homemaking tips, Biblical proverbs, comics, trivia, advice, and children’s games. A scientist, scholar, and astronomer, Franklin relied on his own observations and calculations when putting together the astronomical charts and weather predictions for his almanac.
One reason for the popularity of Poor Richard’s Almanack was the clever and pithy sayings, observations, and aphorisms. In fact, Poor Richard’s Almanack is where we find the majority of Franklin’s proverbs about life, including, “He that lies down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas,” “There never was a good war or a bad peace,” and “Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults.”
Poor Richard’s Almanack was not all serious. Franklin’s quick wit shone through in the jokes, humorous anecdotes, and funny hoaxes he included in the publication. Although Franklin had a bawdy side, many of the jokes and witticisms in Poor Richard’s Almanack can best be described as dad jokes.
A Huge Success
During the 25 years that Poor Richard’s Almanack was published, it was the best-selling almanac in the colonies. Each year, more than 10,000 copies were sold, which helped to make Ben Franklin a wealthy man. The almanac was so popular, in fact, that Napoleon got ahold of a copy and had it translated into Italian. It was also translated into French.
The End of Poor Richard’s Almanack
Ben Franklin, as we said earlier, had a wide array of interests and often moved from one project to the next. By the late-1740s, about fifteen years after he started Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin’s interests had shifted away from the publishing business. He was, at this time, focused more on his scientific discoveries and inventions. He also spent a good portion of his time traveling through Europe as a diplomat. But Poor Richard’s Almanack was a cash cow for him, so he continued to publish his annual almanac. If Franklin’s own interests had shifted, it was not apparent in the pages of the almanac. It was still the same useful, witty, and entertaining publication it had always been. In 1758, after 25 years, Franklin finally ended his Poor Richard’s Almanack. Of course, that wasn’t the end of almanacs in the Americas. In fact, other almanacs mimicked Franklin’s format and style, most notably the Old Farmer’s Almanac which is still published to this day. Since its first issue was printed in 1851, the Old Farmer’s Almanac has included a drawing of Benjamin Franklin on its cover as a form of thanks for the inspiration.