02 June 2015
New Series: Eyes On the Skies
While I was studying the graphics collection at American Antiquarian Society in April, I got very interested in almanacs. Almanacs, I learned, played a large role in early America. The second item ever printed in British North America was an almanac in 1639 (the first was The Bay Psalm Book), and in 1683 Cotton Mather said almanacs came into "almost as many hands as the best of books [the Bible]." Almanacs were extremely popular, and they were more than just calendars. Almanacs contained poetry, weather predictions, holidays, maxims, astrological information, farming tips, health advice, and essays on various scientific or political topics. Some almanacs came with blank pages for keeping diary notes as well, and they were offered at various sizes for different types of use. Reading almanacs at AAS gave me a window into 17th and 18th century "popular culture" the way I can imagine a future scholar might understand our times by reading magazines.
I'm about to start a new series of large works – full sheets of washi, which are 26 x 38 inches (97 x 67 cm) – and I'll be using some almanac quotes as my starting point. I think these pieces will be about the environment, science, and religion. My latest working title is "Eyes On the Skies," although other contenders are "I'm Not a Scientist, But" and "Small Talk About Weather." Since these prints aren't as pre-planned as some others I've done, I'll just have to wait and see which title works best.
Here's one of the discoveries I made at AAS that got me initially so interested in almanacs.
In a Boston almanac from 1774 were printed these two little scientific interest stories, one about microscopic life forms and one about the vast distances in outer space. Beneath the microscope story, an almanac reader had penned "A Dam'd Lye" and after the story about distant stars had noted "Another." It seems that denial of science has been an American trait for some time.