A Short History of the Daily Planner
"Where, how, or with whom my time is spent"-George Washington
Happy 2024! It might not surprise you to know that my favorite thing about the new year is getting a new daily planner. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to plan my days.1
For this New Year post, I decided to look at how people have used daily planners in the past. What I found was a fascinating origin story of tracking time in notebooks.
Moreover, I was delighted to find a book all about daily planners in early America. Molly McCarthy’s The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America is fascinating! I can’t recommend it enough. A lot of the information in this post is based on McCarthy’s research.
So, let’s get started!
1) George Washington’s Almanac
The daily planner as we know it descends from the almanac—a yearly publication listing useful information such as weather forecasts, currency conversions, an interest rate schedule, and planting schedules. Next to the Bible, the almanac was the bestseller of early America. And the almanac was most valued for its calendar.
If your daily planner has symbols for the moon’s phases or maps and measurements, these are the traces of the daily planner’s ancestor: the almanac.
In the 1700s, many users wanted to write in their almanacs, so they had blank pages inserted. This is what George Washington did for his Virginia Almanack:
With fresh, blank pages inserted, Washington recorded the weather as well as a list of
Where, how, or with whom my time is spent
Many of Washington’s days were rather boring. On this page, for example, he records visiting land on the 27th of January and then returning home. The next two days he stays home alone:
At home all day—alone.—
At home all day. Ditto
Once January ended, Washington recorded the month’s weather:
2) Aitken’s Weekly Plan
In the 1770s, an aspiring publisher, Robert Aitken, developed what is generally recognized to be the first planner in America. Aitken’s “Register” displayed an entire week on a page.
Aitken’s register was particularly suited to financial accounting and people used it to note their expenses.
3) Susan B. Anthony’s Diary
Soon publishers caught on and produced almanacs already fitted with blank pages for each day. The social reformer and suffragette, Susan B. Anthony, bought one of the most popular diaries called “The Standard Diary.”
After a set of tables typical of almanacs, the printed material gives way to daily blank pages ready to hold whatever the owner deems worthwhile.
Today we tend to think of daily planners as records of what will happen. But most of its early users saw daily blank space in their notebooks as a way to record what had happened. It was a way to account for one’s time and how it was spent (as George Washington noted).
It’s not until the 20th century that we see pocket diaries regularly used for recording future events.
In fact, the word “planner”—as in an object used to facilitate planning— wasn’t introduced into the English language until the 1970s (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
Notes on Daily Notes
Keep track of time spent: time is valuable, and it makes sense to account for how we spend it. You could even borrow George Washington’s header: "Where, how, or with whom my time is spent."
Your planner is full of possibility: do with it what you want—whether that’s recording what has happened, what will happen, or a combination of both. It’s worth noting that our intense focus on planning future events is distinctly modern. Personally, writing this post has made me consider adding more reflective sections to my 2024 daily planner.
Our planners keep us connected to the earth’s rhythms: I love that daily planners descend from almanacs. I’ve never focused much on the moon cycles noted in my planner, but I have a new appreciation for them now.
As we open our 2024 daily planners, I would love to know: do you have a favorite planner? Do you have your own idiosyncratic methods for organizing days and weeks in your planner? I’d love to gather some creative ideas!
Till Next Monday,