This post was written by cataloger Catherine Falzone.
Continuing our series of highlights from the American Almanac Collection, another almanac of note is the Farmer’s Allminax by Josh Billings. Josh Billings was the pen name of humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885). Shaw was a member of a prominent New England family—his father was a member of Congress, and his uncle was Chief Justice of the State of New York. One would have expected him to follow suit, but he chose mischief over maturity and was expelled from Hamilton College for stealing the clapper of the chapel bell. For the next ten years he traveled the country, working as a farmer, steamboat captain, coal miner, auctioneer, and real estate agent.
Shaw didn’t begin writing until he was in his forties. His first published piece, “Essay on the Mule,” was ignored by readers until he reissued it with intentional, humorous misspellings and titled it “Essa on the Muel bi Josh Billings” (1864). This resonated with audiences and he was published widely in newspapers throughout the country. Shaw also became a successful lecturer, performing 80-100 shows per year in character as Josh Billings, and wrote humorous columns in the New York Weekly and Century Illustrated Monthly.
Billings produced a wildly popular series of comic almanacs, Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax, every year from 1870 to 1879. They played with the universally familiar format of the almanac, using the guise of a common household item to deliver his trademark misspelled aphorisms. As seen in the two examples below, every issue of his almanac had a parody of the “man of signs,” the ancient and, by the 1870s, completely esoteric diagram of a man’s body marked with the signs of the zodiac that mapped onto different body parts, frequently found in almanacs. (Note: I have translated all captions into modern English, in case his misspellings are too confusing!)
Billings also had fun with the weather predictions, another standard component of almanacs throughout history. Click below on the calendar page for February 1874 to see the liberties he takes with his weather forecasts.
Billings was a humorist of and for his time. After the Civil War, American humor had a more skeptical and satirical slant, while becoming less regionally specific; he satirized American life from the fictional and stateless backwater of “Pordunk.” Billings and other so-called “phunny phellows” like Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby relied heavily on the comic potential of “cacography.” By the 1870s, American spelling had been codified, with uniform spelling being taught in schools from Webster’s ubiquitous “blue-backed” spelling book. Because there was finally a “correct” way to spell, readers delighted in seeing it mangled.
Beloved in his era, Josh Billings has been mostly forgotten today. Like fashion, taste in humor changes. However, if you can look past the cacography, Billings is a charming writer, by turns silly and wise. Of course, don’t take my word for it—Abraham Lincoln, a big fan of Billings, once said, “Next to William Shakespeare, Josh Billings is the greatest judge of human nature the world has ever seen.”