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Visions of the Future: Almanacs, Time, and Cultural Change.

By Maureen Perkins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. viii plus 270pp.).

The almanac has long held a certain fascination for cultural historians, while related works of popular literature such as the fortune-telling chapbook and dream book have largely been neglected. The reason for this lies with the more intellectual content and wider social influence of the almanac genre. Almanacs were not only manuals of prognostication, but also vehicles for disseminating political and moral opinions. Early modern almanacs have already been the subject of several excellent discussions by Keith Thomas, Bernard Capp, and Patrick Curry. Maureen Perkins' engaging study, successfully developed from her PhD thesis, takes us beyond the usual period of study by examining the changing form and content of almanacs in the period 1775-1870. Over six chapters, Perkins examines the success of reforming rational almanacs such as the British Almanac and the radical Untaxed General Almanack, the birth of the statistical almanac, the influence of comic and dialect almanacs, the history of almanacs in Australia, and the rise of weather forecasting. Threaded through all these discussions is an examination of the changing fortunes of the astrological content of almanacs.

The success of Perkins' work needs to be assessed in relation to her stated aim of contributing to "the story of the reform of popular culture." (p. 6) By the end of the nineteenth century the predictive and prophetic nature of almanacs had generally been replaced by advertisements and "useful" statistical facts. However, the decline of astrological and prophetic content certainly was not due to waning popular interest in prognostication. Unlike some historians, Perkins is aware of the continued popular thirst for prediction, and so avoids linking the rise of the educational and statistical almanac with mistaken notions of growing popular rationality. The expansion of the newspaper industry, and a shift towards more urban preoccupations in the content of popular literature, certainly influenced the ebb of the almanac, just as both factors contributed to the decline of the chapbook and broadside traditions. However, Perkins also identifies an element of intervention in the demise of some almanac material, and she considers this as indicative of wider attempts by the middle classes to reform popular culture.

The attack on astrological almanacs came from two groups of reformers. On the one side was the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which sought to counter the "superstitions" peddled by such big selling almanacs as Vox Stellarum, through the dissemination of "useful" scientific knowledge. They believed that the supposed enlightening influence of such instructive information would help foster social cohesion. On the other side were radical journalists, such as Richard Carlile and Joseph Barker, who sought to uproot "superstitious ignorance" and to sow the seeds of political consciousness. One of the main vehicles by which both groups sought to achieve their aims was the almanac. By subverting a popular literary format, they hoped to attract the same readership as astrological almanacs, and thereby try to convince them of the error of their beliefs. According to Perkins, although such reforming almanacs may not have succeeded in dispelling popular beliefs concerning astrology, they did have some success in rationalizing the calendar. Along with the rising ownership of watches and clocks during the nineteenth century, there was a purging of the calendar's prophetic and astrological associations. By the end of the nineteenth century, the almanac calendar had become "no more than a succession of numbers on a printed sheet." (p. 237)

One of the most innovative aspects of Perkins' book is her examination of Australian almanacs. It has been mistakenly assumed that folk beliefs relating to the supernatural were somehow excluded from the cultural baggage of Australia's colonists. Such assumptions are undoubtedly a result of the paucity of relevant source material. However, as Perkins shows, through examining the content of almanacs we glimpse a culture in which such folk beliefs continued, and this calls "into question the image of a society completely absorbed in material concerns." (p. 190) It leads one to hope that further work, involving detailed searches though newspapers and other such sources, might cast further light on popular beliefs in nineteenth-century Australia.

Perkins' book could have included more ethnographic detail about people's use of almanacs, and also their reliance on natural astrology. The sections on moonlore and weather prediction, in particular, could have benefitted from a wider reading of folkloric sources. When studying any aspect of popular culture one needs to try and get as close to the voice of the people as possible, before making assumptions about any cultural changes which may have taken place. However, Perkins treads a cautious path, and despite the visible lack of such ethnographic input, does not make any unsupportable claims.

Perkins hopes her work will contribute "to making the concept of 'popular culture' more specific and precise within a particular concept." (p. 7) In recent years the concept of popular culture has certainly been rather kicked into the sidelines, due, perhaps, to the loose way in which it has sometimes been used. However, Perkins demonstrates her awareness of the pitfalls, carefully qualifies her use of the concept, and largely succeeds in achieving her aims. The book is written in a pleasant, entertaining style, and is a welcome contribution to both the history of popular literature, and of astrology. In her acknowledgements, Perkins expresses her indebtedness to the work of Bernard Capp. Visions of the Future certainly deserves a place on the historian's bookshelf alongside Capp's Astrology and the Popular Press (1979).

Owen Davies University of Lancaster
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Article Details
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Author:Davies, Owen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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