Brilliant Creation and Blinding Disappointment

When Banneker set out to write an almanac—a book few households were without—no African American had ever done so. It was a challenge, but Banneker had never shrunk from a challenge. He was a free man and as such he was capable of doing anything he set his mind to.

Banneker went to work on the ephemeris, almost unable to stop himself. By this time, his mother, Mary, had died, and he was the sole caretaker of the farm and all the duties it demanded. During the first half of 1790, he spent long hours organizing data and compiled an ephemeris for 1791 while still tending to the farm and household chores. As the new year approached, time was of the essence, as his faithful wooden clock reminded him each time it struck the hour. The manuscript needed to be ready to send to a prospective publisher in time to be printed for the next year, if indeed it would be printed at all.

At last it was complete. The ephemeris was a magnificent amount of work, carefully copied onto the finest pages he could afford, in the format consistent with an almanac. Convinced his

The Importance of the Eighteenth-Century Almanac

The importance of an almanac during this period should not be underestimated. Since its introduction to the American colonies in 1639, printed material available to the rural public was usually restricted to two books: the almanac and the Bible. The almanac was a cherished possession for any household and basically served as the only calendar available. (The common household calendar really did not come into regular print and regular use until late in the 19th century.) Each year, a new almanac was produced for the coming year and was available for purchase before the start of that year.

The first almanacs consisted only of an ephemeris, which served the user in calculating the rising and setting of the Sun and key stars. A navigator would use it to determine his position from certain fixed stars and predict the tides. The farmer would use the celestial predictions in order to know when to plow the soil, plant, and harvest his crops by the phases of the Moon, and when to expect the summer solstice or the winter equinox. Around Banneker's time, it gradually began offering additional material, such as weather predictions, histories, astrology, dates of special events, and even poetry.

The Old Farmer's Almanac is still in publication today. It contains all the classic information plus recipes and cooking tips, gardening tips, and old-fashioned techniques for daily living, such as how to determine the outside temperature by counting the chirps of a cricket. Many people still subscribe to it on a yearly basis and would not think of being without one.



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Reproduction of a page from Banneker's astronomical journal. The original manuscript now resides in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society.

astronomical tables were of his best work, Banneker sent it to Goddard and Angell, a prominent publisher in Baltimore. To his grave disappointment, his manuscript was promptly rejected. He tried another and met with the same result. His third try was with Goddard's rival, John Hays. As it so happened, Hays was the publisher for the renowned surveyor Major Andrew Ellicott, cousin to Banneker's close friend George. Major Ellicott, then living in Philadelphia, was himself author of several almanacs published within the last few years. Hays reported to Banneker that he might be willing to publish his 1791 ephemeris if the work was of acceptable quality. With that said, Hays sent Banneker's manuscript to Major Ellicott for his inspection. When at last Hays finally declined to publish Banneker's work, attesting that his readers were used to the Ellicott almanac and would not welcome a different author, it was too late for him to try and find a new publisher in time for the almanac to be ready for 1791. Banneker was devastated, and he retreated to his farmhouse in bitter disappointment.

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