ALMANACS – PEEPHOLES INTO THE PAST (June 18/99)

Since history books are written by scholars who tend to deal with events on a grand scale, one often must turn to memoirs, diaries and letters for an intimate look at the early days.

If you’re interested in what life was like as recently as the 19th century, however, just read the old almanacs. While dry and boring from our point of view, the almanacs published in the 1800s give us accurate glimpses of the period. The advertisements, the endless lists and compilations are peepholes into the past; they tell us more about what early life was truly like in the Annapolis Valley than a hundred historical tomes.

One such publication is Belcher’s Farmers Almanack, which was first published over 100 years ago. I have a copy of the 1893 edition – on temporary loan from a friend – which in format is similar to other almanacs from the same period. By perusing this old almanac, reading the lists, looking at what the old advertisements offer in goods and services, I find myself transported to my great-grandfather’s day. And I discover that …

The relatively new railroad runs through my home county on a regular basis. The Windsor and Annapolis Railway (not yet incorporated into the D.A.R.) makes at least a dozen scheduled stops between Windsor and Kentville; and if I was living in that time and didn’t own a horse, I could hop on the train and go west as far as Annapolis and east to the Halifax city limits.

I learn that stagecoaches were running on a schedule connected with train runs. My great grandparents could get off the train at several places along the line in Hants and Kings County and take a coach into the hinterlands; at Middleton they could have caught another train and traveled to Bridgewater or Lunenburg.

While reading the advertisements I notice something curious; only a few of the old store ads – five in total – have telephone numbers and all are located in Halifax. We can surmise that there were even fewer telephones in private residences, most of which were probably located in Halifax and larger towns. And since there was a lack of instant communication, the ads urge people to “write for prices,” send for prices” and “write for a copy of our guide.”

As for the advertisements, they tell us it was definitely the era of the horse and buggy. One A. A. Archibald offers fine carriages; other advertisements offer sleighs, harness and saddlery hardware, horse boots and halters. Hotels boast in their ads that they have electric lights and they offer free buggy rides to ferry and train terminals.

Since doctors were as “scarce as hen’s teeth,” – undoubtedly one of our great-grandpappy’s favorite saying – one finds advertisements for patent medicines. Grandpappy had to treat various ills and chills with such concoctions as antibilious pills, milk of cucumber, cocoa cough cure, tonic phosphate, and so on, all of which are offered for sale in the almanac.

I see that my great-grandfather had a great many weekly newspapers to read, in fact, many more than there are today. There were two newspapers serving Kentville, the New Star and Western Chronicle, two in Windsor, the Hants Journal and Tribune, one in Wolfville, the Acadian and one in Canning, the Gazette.

The editors of the old almanacs liked to compile boring lists. Listed, for example, are dignitaries from mayors to heads of state, doctors, lawyers, justices of the peace, coroners, ministers, clubs, and so on. From these lists I’ve picked a statistic that may have excited my great grandpappy, or at least made his day. The number of lawyers in the corridor between Kentville and Windsor in 1893 totaled 25 and only three were located outside these towns. Grandpappy must have been ecstatic when he learned this.

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