This woodcut engraved caricature was used as a frontispiece to the 1776 edition of Freebetter’s New England Almanack. It is a copy of an English caricature entitled The able doctor, or America swallowing the bitter draught which was originally published in the London Magazine in 1774. The American artist has reversed the image and deleted the Earl of Bute, who is shown standing at the far right of the English edition, carrying weaponry which symbolises the imposition of martial law on the unruly colonists.
Almanacs were extremely popular during the eighteenth-century, with annual sales in England exceeding the total of all other publications combined. As a such they were also one of the few forms of publication to be regularly bought by people drawn from the lower and middling ranks of the social spectrum. The almanac’s popularity was derived from its utility and low retail price. For a few pence, customers were able to purchase a pocket-sized book which simultaneously served as a calendar, diary, reference book and source of entertainment. The core function of the almanac was an agricultural calendar which also carried feast days, holidays and other notable events. However from the 1730s onwards, publishers began to insert useful articles on subjects ranging from health to astrology, stories, travel information, and conversion charts. Sadly few of these publications have survived and the relatively poor quality of the materials used to make them means that those which have are often in poor condition.
Americans inherited the English obsession with the almanac, with the first domestic edition being published in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1639. By the time the Revolution broke out in 1775, the American colonies boasted dozens of domestically produced titles with annual circulation figures likely to have been in the high tens or low hundreds of thousands. Freebetter’s New England Almanack was published by Timothy Green in New London, Connecticut, between 1772 and 1792. Green was a prolific publisher of all manner of printed materials and its possible that he also sold imported English books and prints. This would certainly explain how he was able to obtain a copy of a caricature from the London Magazine. It’s an interesting reminder of the geographic and social spread of English caricatures in this period.
This is one of a set of twelve American almanac titles published between 1776 and 1784 which are being offered up for sale in a US auction next month. They carry an estimate of $800 – $1,000 (£650 – £850), which seems reasonable given that a number of online dealers are currently asking around $600 for an individual 1770s edition of Freebetter’s… For more on the English almanac trade see James Raven, Publishing Business in Eighteenth-Century England, Woodbridge, 2014. pp. 201 – 205.