Poor Richard’s Almanack

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Poor Richard’s Almanack

by Benjamin Franklin


A magazine-like collection of practical information for colonial America; published yearly from 1733 to 1758.


Almanacs were calendars that contained weather predictions, astrological divination, recipes. proverbs, and other short writings.

Events in History at the Time of the Almanacs

The Almanacks in Focus

For More Information

From a childhood of poverty, Benjamin Franklin rose to become a successful businessman and a founding father of the United States. Born in 1706 as the son of a candlemaker, Franklin earned a position of wealth and respect in the Philadelphia community through hard work and thrift. He filled Poor Richard’s Almanack, a bestseller for more than twenty years, with advice on how to acquire wealth through industry.

Events in History at the Time of the Almanacs

Franklin as an early example of the American dream

America has always been considered a land of freedom and economic opportunity. Immigrants who possessed nothing in Europe dreamed of coming to the American colonies to make their fortunes. This concept of working one’s way out of poverty into wealth has been a driving force since the early colonists stepped off their vessels onto the raw American continent. A living example that this dream could come true, Franklin spread the belief that anyone willing to work hard could succeed.

Franklin was the fifteenth child in his family. He attended school for two years, after which he stayed home to help his father make candles and soap. His father observed that young Benjamin liked to read, and so he apprenticed the boy to his brother as a printer in Boston, Massachusetts. Franklin developed writing skills during his apprenticeship, and he showed great promise. The two brothers did not get along, though, and Franklin ran away after five years.

Nearly broke, Franklin arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He hungrily entered a bakery and paid the baker three pennies to give him anything he could for such a paltry sum. The baker gave him three bread rolls that were so large they would not fit inside Franklin’s pockets. Instead, he carried one under each arm and ate the third. Franklin often referred back to this point in his life to show the poor beginnings that he had overcome through hard work.

Staying in Philadelphia, Franklin began a period of determined labor. He borrowed money and used his printing skills to rise out of obscurity, developing habits that enabled him to do well. Franklin did not want his creditors to think him frivolous, so he dressed plainly and continually sought to appear industrious and frugal. Entering into a number of successful business ventures, Franklin owned a printing press at the age of twenty-four. Franklin’s efforts included publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette, the second newspaper to open in Pennsylvania. He continued to expand his printing business and served as a public official in the colony. Some of the positions Franklin held included the job of clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly and the job of Postmaster of Philadelphia. Both of these positions enhanced his printing business.

Franklin retired after only twenty years in the printing business, yet he was busy and successful for the rest of his life. He became a soldier, commissioner, diplomat, scientist, and inventor. He also helped found Philadelphia’s first library, fire company, college, and militia. Franklin went on to help draft both the Declaration of Independence (also covered in Literature and Its Times) and the Constitution of the United States of America. His rise to prominence and the range and impact of his activities remain impressive. As one biographer noted, it is important to remember that Franklin “began as a businessman, and his success in business paved the way for grander successes” (Baida, p. 30).

Dreams of prosperity in the early 1700s

During the first half of the 1700s, colonial America underwent a time of rapid economic expansion and change. Manufacturing and commerce grew at enormous rates in the northern colonies, and business was concentrated in large commercial centers like Philadelphia. Pennsylvania emerged as once of the richest and fastest-growing provinces during this period. In the South, a wealthy class of plantation owners began to emerge.

The period found many colonists actively engaged in the pursuit of wealth. People invested in “get rich quick” schemes or bought and sold land to make rapid profits. Other economic issues emerged as well. A problem that troubled Franklin during the early and middle 1700s was the great scarcity of “real” money. The colonies were not allowed to mint coins, so people often conducted business by bartering, trading one kind of good for another, or using credit. People who paid with cash were rare, and credit accounts often ran on indefinitely. Franklin advocated the introduction of paper money as a means to solve this problem.

The emergence of industry and commerce brought economic flux, and the nation experienced booms and busts. Occasionally, the financial slumps left people homeless or reduced them to beggars. Many historians question how much of the population benefited from the economic prosperity of the times. As places like Philadelphia grew, so did urban poverty, especially after 1720. Many of the poor were recent immigrants or rural farmers who had moved to the expanding city in order to improve their financial situation. Poverty was so widespread that poor-houses were established in order to feed the growing number of needy.

Heavy immigration during this time also affected the economy. Previous waves of immigrants had been mostly Anglo-Saxon and included many people from the upper classes. During the 1700s, however, many black slaves were brought to the colonies, and a significant number of poor people of German, Scottish, and Irish descent streamed into Pennsylvania, sparking fears of foreigners among the English inhabitants. By 1720 Pennsylvania had surpassed New York in terms of population. While reliable statistics are difficult to find, some estimate that the city of Philadelphia grew from less than 2,500 people in 1700 to 5,000 inhabitants in 1720 to over 20,000 by 1770.

Franklin believed that these newcomers tended toward financial speculation and did not know how to save. He felt that the immigrants coming to Pennsylvania sought easy shortcuts to riches. Franklin wanted Philadelphia to become a notable city, but believed that it would never reach that point if its inhabitants did not learn how to be industrious and frugal. Persuading them to share this belief became one of the goals of his almanacs.

Printed material in the colonies

Most colonists did not have easy access to books other than the Bible and religious tracts. There were not many printers and publishers in the early 1700s, and the few books that were published sold for high prices. A single book might cost twice the amount a common laborer earned in a day. Even newspapers were not widespread. Almanacs, however, were circulated by the thousands. Easy to write and publish, they were purchased by some 60 to 65 percent of colonial households.

Originally, almanacs consisted of single sheets with eight pages to a side. This sixteen-page format gradually evolved to twenty-four pages by the end of the 1600s. Almanacs generally had no cover and varied in their dimensions. A standard almanac measured approximately six by four inches, while pocket almanacs measured approximately four and one-half by two and three-fifths inches. Most almanacs included a title page, a preface, and instructions for use. Many began the calendar year with March and allotted one to two pages per month.

Almanacs played an important role in the lives of the colonists. Providing information that was otherwise difficult to obtain, almanacs were calendars supplemented with weather forecasts, tidal predictions, and astronomical tables. Some almanacs provided other information as well, including timetables for court sessions, listings of the royal European families, road conditions, conversion tables for currency, and weight and measurement tables. Almanacs also incorporated elements of popular science, literature, current events, humor, and other forms of entertainment, providing food for thought, conversation, or gossip. Some people used almanacs as diaries because they had wide margins, while others used the publications to teach their children to read.

Ben Franklin and the Enlightenment

The growing materialistic attitude in the United States during this time can be traced back to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, which is also known as the Age of Reason, was based on the ideas of French philosophers such as François Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau. It was a movement that embraced science, rational thinking, progress, individualism, and the acquisition of knowledge based on fact. Proponents of the Enlightenment valued mankind’s ability to reason above all other things.

The influence of the Enlightenment was manifested in the changing values in the United States during the eighteenth century. People began to concentrate on the pursuit of material rewards in this world rather than spiritual ones in the next. Franklin, who was not a religious man, is often considered a strong figure of the Enlightenment in America. He firmly believed that it was an individual’s duty to better himself, and that the community would eventually benefit from individual success. A person who betters himself through hard work and diligent saving habits, for instance, eventually provides material wealth for both the person and the town or settlement.

Franklin believed in the quest for moral improvement as well as the pursuit of money. He listed thirteen virtues that he considered necessary for moral perfection—temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility. A man who acted on his beliefs, Franklin resolved to develop these virtues in himself one by one. He even kept a moral ledger with which he measured his progress.

Puritans, poverty, and politics

Franklin felt an affinity for common people and he specifically geared his almanacs toward them. He purposefully prefaced his pseudonym with “Poor” as a means of identifying himself with the masses. Although Franklin was not religious, he grew up in a strongly Puritan household, and Poor Richard’s Almanack reflected his Puritan heritage in relation to poverty. Puritans generally believed that hard work indicated a virtuous character and that the pursuit of wealth was a praiseworthy goal—views promoted by Franklin’s almanacs.

Franklin also suggested that those who remain poor deserved to be poor, another notion firmly rooted in Puritanism. Wealth came to those who applied themselves and took advantage of opportunities that came along. Furthermore, Franklin reasoned, citizens ought to help such hard-working poor people because everybody suffers temporary misfortunes.

Almanacs provided a forum outside the government and churches for discussion of politics, bringing the subject to the average Americans of the day. Franklin encouraged his readers to become involved politically and urged poor people to shape their own destinies by following the maxims in Poor Richard’s and assuming a role in public affairs. While he did not believe that political involvement was appropriate for all members of society (he excluded immigrants and women from such duty), he did believe in opening up the political process to middle-class white males. During the 1700s, this was a revolutionary notion.

Benjamin Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack during a peaceful time in Pennsylvania politics. However, the political scene grew more turbulent during the 1740s and 1750s. Franklin’s almanacs changed accordingly. After 1747 they featured a decidedly political bent as Franklin used the publication to distribute his Whig viewpoints. Broadly, Whigs were a political party of England that advocated commercial and industrial development and individual independence. They believed that concentrated governmental power threatened freedom and led to corruption and oppression.

Franklin’s adages about tyrants reflected Whig philosophy. He sometimes attacked the French kings Louis XIV and Louis XV as the source of ruination of their country, and he continually emphasized the importance of the common man. In 1734, for example, he wrote, “an innocent Plowman is more worthy than a vicious Prince” (Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanacks, p. 20).

The Almanacks in Focus

The contents

Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack every year for twenty-five years under the pen name of Richard Saunders. His almanacs contained weather predictions, poems, recipes, tidal forecasts, divinations, scientific information, and advice regarding the making of money through industry. According to the almanac’s introduction, “Richard Saunders” was a poor farmer who was forced to publish the almanac in order to pacify his wife.

The first issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack was published in 1732 for the year 1733. Twenty-four pages in length, it was an immediate hit. Almanac writers often criticized their competition, thus drumming up business for themselves and for almanac sales in general. Franklin, though, immediately set a humorous tone by entering into a witty competition with Titan Leeds, a rival almanac publisher. In the introduction to Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin—writing as Saunders—states that he had not previously published an almanac because he feared hurting the business of his dear friend Titan Leeds. He explains, however, that according to his calculations, Mr. Leeds will die shortly and the problem will cease to exist. Titan Leeds remains alive, however, which provides material for humorous banter in following issues. In 1735 Saunders complains that Titan Leeds’s ghost is haunting him: “I say, having receiv’d much Abuse from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who pretends to be still living, and to write Almanacks in spight of me and my Predictions, I cannot help saying, that tho’ I take it patiently, I take it very unkindly. And whatever he may pretend, ‘tis undoubtedly true that he is really defunct and dead” (Poor Richard’s Almanacks, pp. 25-6).

Franklin was fond of proverbs, which are short, well-known sayings that gain authority over time, and he included many of these in Poor Richard’s Almanack. Some of the proverbs and maxims Franklin used are still well known today: “Fish & Visitors stink in 3 days,” “God helps them that help themselves,” and “Tart Words make no Friends: a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a Gallon of Vinegar” (Poor Richard’s Almanacks, pp. 37, 39, 116).

Franklin’s almanacs also contained short poems, many of which were funny or didactic. For example, under the month of October 1742, a poem advises readers on how to find true happiness:

On him true happiness shall wait
Who shunning noisy Pomp and State
Those little Blessings of the Great,
Consults the Golden Mean.
In prosp’rous Gales with Care he steers,
Nor adverse Winds, dejected, fears,
In ev’ry Turn of Fortune bears
A Face and Mind Serene.
          (Poor Richard’s Almanacks, pp. 98-9)

Franklin’s zeal for science also prompted him to include scientific information on many occasions. In January 1748 Franklin wrote:

On the 19th of this Month, Anno 1493, was born the famous Astronomer Copernicus, to whom we own the Invention, or rather the Revival (it being taught by Pythagoras near 2000 Years before) of that now generally receiv’d System of the World which bears his Name, and supposes the Sun in the Center, this Earth a Planet revolving round it in 365 Days, 6 Hours, etc. and that Day and Night are caused by the Turning of the Earth on its own Axis once round in 24 hours.

(Poor Richard’s Almanacks, p. 147)

The development of Poor Richard and “The Way to Wealth”

Poor Richard was originally a comic character. A poor farmer who fancied himself an astrologer, he had been browbeaten by his wife into publishing an almanac for money. Richard introduces himself in the 1733 issue:

The plain Truth of the Matter is, I am excessive poor, and my Wife, good Woman, is, I tell her, excessive proud; she cannot bear, she says, to sit spinning in Shift of Tow, while I do nothing but gaze at the Stars; and has threatened more than once to burn all my Books and Rattling-Traps (as she calls my Instruments) if I do not make some profitable Use of them for the good of my Family.

(Poor Richard’s Almanacks, p. 3)

As the years passed, Richard became less of a comic figure and more of a sage. Franklin also changed the tone of the almanac, making it less playful.


While Franklin dedicated many pages of Poor Richard’s to advice and information, humor also played a large role. His predictions, for example, were often made in jest:

Courteous Readers.

Having consider’d the infinite Abuses arising from the false Prognostications [predictions] published among you, made under the shadow of a Pot of Drink, or so, I have here calculated one of the most sure and unerring that ever was seen…

Of the diseases this Year.

This year the Stone-blind shall see but very little; the Deaf shall hear but poorly; and the Dumb shan’t speak very plain… As for old Age, ‘twill be incurable this Year, because of the Years past.

(Poor Richard’s Almanacks, pp. 72-3)

In the twenty-fifth edition of the almanac, published in 1757, Benjamin Franklin wrote a speech that came to be known as “The Way to Wealth.” It consisted of adages pertaining to thrift and industry from previous issues. He attributed this speech to a character called Father Abraham, a wise old man at a county auction. Asked for advice about the heavy tax burden and their woeful financial affairs, Father Abraham addresses the people quite seriously: “If you’d have my Advice, I’ll give it you in short, for a Word to the Wise is enough, and many Words won’t fill a Bushel, as Poor Richard says” (Poor Richard’s Almanacks, p. 278). Father Abraham then proceeds to present a string of proverbs concerning the value of savings and hard work. The speech quickly became famous. “The Way to Wealth” was considered a “how-to” book for financial success, and colonists who dreamed of becoming rich quickly bought

it. The speech was eventually translated into Russian, Welsh, Chinese, Catalan, Polish, Gaelic, and Bohemian. Along with his Autobiography (also covered in Literature and Its Times), “The Way to Wealth” became one of Benjamin Franklin’s best-known pieces of writing.


Many almanacs appeared in the colonies over the years. Early colonial almanacs included William Price’s An Almanacke for New-England for the Year 1639, and others soon followed, such as Nathaniel Ames’ Astronomical Diary and Almanack (1726-1764) and Poor Robin’s Almanack, published by Franklin’s brother James Franklin in 1728. By the time that Benjamin Franklin printed his first issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack, there were already five other almanacs in circulation in Philadelphia.

Poor Richard’s Almanack outsold them all. The most popular nonreligious publication of its day, it sold second only to the Bible. An average rate of sales for the almanac was approximately one Poor Richard for every one hundred colonists. Franklin’s initial wealth stemmed from these sales and stands as a symbol of early American capitalism. Franklin noted, “I endeavour’d to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand, that I reap’d considerable profit from it, vending annually ten thousand” (Franklin, Writings, p. 704).

Franklin’s almanac outshone his competitors for a number of reasons. First, he printed more information than did other almanacs. Most of his competitors simply printed the phases of the moon, the times of sunrise and sunset, and speculative predictions. Franklin’s almanac covered a much wider range of subjects, including proverbs, anecdotes, the times and places of important meetings, scientific tidbits, recipes, political and philosophical discussions, astrological predictions, and fair locations. Most importantly, Franklin’s almanac was laced with humor and wit. As one historian notes, “the single greatest reason for the success of Poor Richard’s was Franklin’s ability to spice the prosaic matter of the ordinary almanac with more engaging commentary than his competitors could write” (Miller in Pencak, p. 188).


The origin of Franklin’s pen name, Richard Saunders, has been a subject of some speculation. Some scholars believe that he took the name from an English astrologer named Richard Saunders. Other people point out that, coincidentally or not, there was also a real person named Richard Saunder who printed an almanac during Franklin’s time.

Franklin was a lover of proverbs. As a writer and a statesman, he often resorted to proverbs to augment his opinions. In his hands, these adages became persuasive tools, and he often used them to defeat an opponent’s argument. He recited proverbs to support his claims of British injustice against the colonies, to threaten England, and to attack people whom he considered religious hypocrites.

Franklin borrowed these sayings from a variety of sources. He did not draw from other almanacs but rather from a wide range of authors, including François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Francis Bacon, Geoffrey Chaucer, Alexander Pope, and Lord Michel de Montaigne. According to one scholar, an important source for Franklin’s sayings was James Howell’s Lexicon Tetraglotton (1659-1660), from which Franklin allegedly derived almost two hundred sayings. Other important works include Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia (1732), George Herbert’s Outlandish Proverbs (1640), and Duc de La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims (1665). A fine writer, Franklin rewrote many proverbs in order to incorporate American elements or make them shorter. For example, Ray’s Collection of English Proverbs (1678) included the proverb, “God restoreth health, and the physician hath the thanks.” Franklin published the saying as “God heals and the doctor takes the fee” (Poor Richard’s Almanacks, p. xvi).

For More Information

Baida, Peter. Poor Richard’s Legacy. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Doren, Carl Van. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Viking, 1938.

Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard’s Almanacks. New York: George Macy, 1964.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings. Edited by Carl Van Doren. New York: Viking, 1945.

Pencak, William. “Politics and Ideology in Poor Richard’s Almanack.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 116, no. 2 (April 1992): 183-211.

Simmons, R. C. The American Colonies from Settlement to Independence. New York: David McKay, 1976.

Stowell, Marion B. Early American Almanacs. New York: Burt Franklin, 1977.