Historical popular calendars as a valuable source

Related to my former post on the importance of newspaper digitization I’d like to additionally present a few theses on another type of periodicals which is still widely neglected despite its cultural value:

1. Popular calendars1 are of high relevance because they were very likely read by most people who were ordinary or occasional readers. Beside chapters on chronology and general information (e.g. the city’s addresses, market days, prizes of post offices, currency value etc.), these publications also provided essayistic or poetic works. Calendars thus served as reading materials for the higher and middle as well as for the lower strata of society because they were a very useful tool due to their calendarical as well as their socially important information which was presented in a readable, sorted and well-arranged way.

2. Calendars nevertheless were in some way the opposite reading materials to the “elitist” newspapers. One should not make the mistake to transfer today’s reading habits to earlier time periods: in the past newspapers were not read by anyone but were especially in rural areas reserved to the “intellectuals” like officials, clerics or teachers. Peasants or workers were often not willing to spend valuable money on the luxury of daily information which could also be obtained by other means of social communication. Many families however who usually did not buy books or newspapers bought at least a calendar once a year. This did not make up for newspapers but was a solid reading material with its essays and poems. Consequently the calendars were beside the bible one of the the most common reading materials particularly in the 19th century.

3. Popular calendars contain a very concentrated amount of information as well as cultural representations. Being published only once a year and having a volume of 120 to 250 pages, a calendar volume had to contain the most important cultural references and was therefore not informative diluted like e.g. newspapers or journals which appeared at least once or twice a week and had much more space to provide information. Consequently due to their high concentration of content, calendars can be very useful in determining the cultural canon of a community in a certain time period.

4. The perception of the changes in society in the course of a year is very well visible in a calendar. Its editorial team is often giving some kind of a protocol or overview of the last year – so to say the year “in a nutshell”. It is obvious that these parts offer some of the most important – even if subjective – information for historical discourse analyses.

5. The thesis that the press is especially important for a minority (see the other article) is also valid for calendars. Though they do not reach the importance of the newspapers as platform for communication and debates on urgent issues, they reached out to larger parts of the respective communities. Their reception was therefore more horizontal, thus providing a partially different perspective on historical developments than newspapers.

As a conclusion it is to be stated that calendars are not just by-products of a society’s publicational output, but played notably in the 19th century a constant, even if often underestimated role in the reading culture. Therefore there is no plausible cause why these materials should continue to be largely ignored in digitization programs.

  1. For numerous examples please visit my institute’s website: http://www.ios-regensburg.de/informationsinfrastruktur/bibliothek/digitale-bibliothek/volkskalender.html  []

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