A brief history
Works dating back as early as 1250 BC could be considered precursors to the modern almanac, though the word "almanac" itself was not used until Roger Bacon's 1276 Opus Majus. The earliest European almanac appeared in 1474 as Ephemerides ab Anno (1475-1506), the work of Regiomontanus (Johann Miller). By the end of that century, Richard Pynson's Kalendar of Shepards (1497) became the first almanac printed in England.
In the British colonies in America, the first printed book was an almanac, a 1639 volume calculated for New England by Captain William Pierce, Mariner. A 1686 Pennsylvania almanac, the Kalendarum Pennsilvaniense or Americas Messinqer by Samuel Atkins likewise became the first book printed in the Middle Colonies, demonstrating the "considerable value and importance" colonial Americans placed on their almanacs.
In 1646, Harvard College published the first extant almanac in America, and would continue to do so annually until 1676. That year, John Foster published the first extant almanac in the colonies outside of Harvard and for the first time, two separate almanacs were produced in the same year. Production would continue to grow from there¹.
The earliest American almanac in Tisch's collection dates to 1752.
Rise and fall
The second half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century could be considered the "golden age" of almanacs, as cheap prices, growing public demand, and a recognition of their profitability led to a boom in almanac titles.
By the mid-nineteenth century, several factors came together to lead to a decline in the popularity of almanacs. They began facing competition from the increased availability of other forms of cheap, secular publications, including newspapers, magazines, novels, and specialty almanacs. The country continued to shift to a more urban and literate middle-class population, making almanacs less relevant than they had been to a more rural farming audience. Clocks, inexpensive wristwatches, and advertising calendars became more common (especially in urban areas), making the almanac less necessary as a timekeeping device².
¹Robert Tolbert Sidwell, “The Colonial American Almanacs: A Study in Non-Institutional Education” (Educat.D. dissertation, Rutgers, New Brunswick, 1965), xiii-xv, 1-2, 36, 52.
²Thomas A. Horrocks, “Rules, Remedies, and Regimens: Almanacs and Popular Medicine in Early America” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2003), 14, 180.