A Brief History of Calendar Design

A Brief History of Calendar Design

Being a calendar publisher, we love all things relating to calendars and how they have evolved over time. 

Francesco Bertelli of the UX Collective shared a fascinating article on the history of calendar design. Excerpts below:

A seven-day cycle seems to have a mixed and synchronous origin which are hard to trace and provide the ultimate inventor: it was practiced in Judaism since the 6th century BC and the number seven also had a mystical significance to Babylonians. It was associated with the seven heavenly bodies; the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. A seven-day week based on these same celestial bodies was adopted as far away as Japan and ancient China. But the popularity of the seven-day week — and its prominence in modern calendars — can be traced to its adoption by the Romans: emperor Constantine formally adopted the seven-day week in AD 321. Which means we have been using this practice for about 1,700 years straight.

The Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. It’s impossible to find a unique inventor when is that far away from the present. So we have to speak in terms of the ability to make a convention popular. Romans again can be attributed to being the agent in making the month defined by 30/31 days. Of course, they didn’t do the math correctly, as they were using only 8 months a year. But due to their presence in the western culture, this practice stood the Gregorian reform to this day. 

If Romans gave us the calendar as we know it, we still don’t know who popularized the grid format. The grid itself seems like a natural choice because it’s the most intuitive and real-estate efficient way to display a sequence of elements — Egyptians were already using grids for their calendars. It almost seems it does not need an inventor at all like we’d never ask who invented writing. 

The calendar seems to follow the same path, although the visual representation of months and weeks change direction between the 16th and 17th centuries. 

Before the 1600s it was popular to represent years, months and weeks using circular diagrams because it’s the best way to represent cycles. The calendars were conceived as perpetual devices and not as planners showing the year ahead, neither was present any correlation between day name and the date — the seven-day week as we know it.

For many decades to come the only design available were perpetual calendars, a tool valid for many years, designed to allow the calculation of the day of the week for a given date in the future — not as disposable and year-specific as is produced today. Disposable or advertising calendar will be available only when the industrial revolution will make printing very cheap and therefore available to the masses.

The modern calendar evolved alongside others such as almanacs, which collected religious, cultural, meteorological, astronomical and astrological information in a table format — also ephemeris was layout as grids. But the major shift in the calendar design, from circles to tables arrangements, will happen only in the late 15th century, not only because of the Gregorian calendar revision of 1582, but probably, because of the introduction of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg.

Samuel Morland’s perpetual almanac, dated 1650 pictured above, is an interesting early example of these approaches. Curiously there is no mention of the weekday names, but only the first seven letters of the alphabet, a format also seen in a later print from William Parsons pocketbook from the early 17th century.

In 1773, Robert Aitken, who was a publisher, invented what he claimed was America’s first daily planner, offering his customers a preset layout, not unlike the planners of today. For the first time ever, Americans could see their days laid out in a list, like modern agendas, and plan ahead their “to-do” going beyond the almanac’s generic predictions.

Alongside their practical use, calendars have developed into a decorative item. The late 18th century and across the second industrial revolution advertising calendars will become a popular vehicle to spread the brand identity in people households. Hotels, gas stations, banks, small or big brands all will be offering complimentary calendars as a mean to boost their presence.

We have to wait until the 1960s to return to a minimalism where the graphic design and the typeface become the object of experimentation, also facilitated by the introduction of Helvetica and modernist approach. Most famous and celebrated output of that era happen to come from two Italians in the same year: Vignelli famous large wall calendar, and Enzo Mari perpetual versions, both here to stay in our households.

Image: Samuel Morland’s perpetual almanac, 1650. (Courtesy of Creative Commons.)

Posted by Amber Lotus Publishing on 30th Dec 2022