Two of the best-known school books in the history of American education were the 18th century New England Primer and the 19th century McGuffey Readers. Of the two, McGuffey's was the most popular and widely used. It is estimated that at least 120 million copies of McGuffey's Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960, placing its sales in a category with the Bible and Webster's Dictionary. Since 1961 they have continued to sell at a rate of some 30,000 copies a year. No other textbook bearing a single person's name has come close to that mark. McGuffey's Readers are still in use today in some school systems, and by parents for home schooling purposes.
The author of the Readers, William Holmes McGuffey, was born September 23, 1800, near Claysville, Pennsylvania, and moved to Youngstown, Ohio with his parents in 1802. McGuffey's family had immigrated to America from Scotland in 1774, and brought with them strong opinions on religion and a belief in education. Educating the young mind and preaching the gospel were McGuffey's passions. He had a remarkable ability to memorize, and could commit to mind entire books of the Bible. McGuffey became a "roving" teacher at the age of 14, beginning with 48 students in a one-room school in Calcutta, Ohio. The size of the class was just one of several challenges faced by the young McGuffey. In many one-teacher schools, children's ages varied from six to twenty-one. McGuffey often worked 11 hours a day, 6 days a week in a succession of frontier schools, primarily in the State of Kentucky. Students brought their own books, most frequently the Bible, since few textbooks existed.
Between teaching jobs, William McGuffey received an excellent classical education at the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Washington College in 1826. That same year he was appointed to a position as Professor of Languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1827, McGuffey married Harriet Spinning, and the couple eventually had five children. Very little is known about the early lives of these children, although one daughter's diary reveals that perfect obedience and submission were expected. William McGuffey spent his life striving to instill his strong convictions in the next generation. He believed religion and education to be interrelated and essential to a healthy society.
While McGuffey was teaching at Oxford, he established a reputation as a lecturer on moral and biblical subjects. In 1835, the small Cincinnati publishing firm of Truman and Smith asked McGuffey to create a series of four graded Readers for primary level students. McGuffey was recommended for the job by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a longtime friend. He completed the first two Readers within a year of signing his contract, receiving a fee of $1,000. While McGuffey compiled the first four Readers (1836-1837 edition), the fifth and sixth were created by his brother Alexander during the 1840s. The series consisted of stories, poems, essays and speeches. The advanced Readers contained excerpts from the works of great writers such as John Milton, Daniel Webster and Lord Byron.
The McGuffey Readers reflect their author's personal philosophies, as well as his rough and tumble early years as a frontier schoolteacher. The finished works represented far more than a group of textbooks; they helped frame the country's morals and tastes, and shaped the American character. The lessons in the Readers encouraged standards of morality and society throughout the United States for more than a century. They dealt with the natural curiosity of children; emphasized work and an independent spirit; encouraged an allegiance to country, and an understanding of the importance of religious values. The Readers were filled with stories of strength, character, goodness and truth. The books presented a variety of contrasting viewpoints on many issues and topics, and drew moral conclusions about lying.
From HOUGHTON MIFFLIN College Division
This series of schoolbooks teaching reading and moral precepts, originally prepared by William Holmes McGuffey in 1836, had a profound influence on public education in the United States. McGuffey was a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a Presbyterian minister. A Cincinnati publishing firm asked him to compile a series of graded readers adapted to the values, beliefs, and way of life of "Western people." As a young schoolmaster, McGuffey had used the eighteenth-century Puritans' New England Primer, Noah Webster's American Spelling Book, and the Bible. His Eclectic First Reader and Eclectic Second Reader were published in 1836, the Third and Fourth in 1837. They contained stories of widely varied subject matter appealing to youngsters and taught religious, moral, and ethical principles that reflected both McGuffey's personality and society at the time. McGuffey's brother Alexander produced the Fifth Reader in 1844, a spelling book in 1846, and a Sixth Reader in 1857.
In 1841 the original publishing partnership dissolved. The books passed through a series of seven owners while their content evolved during almost a hundred years of publication. Although the revised texts issued in 1857 added the name "McGuffey" to the title, they moved away from the Calvinist values of salvation, righteousness, and piety and reflected the morality and cultural values of a broader American society that had incorporated religion within the civil structure. The 1879 editions taught morality and good character to the emerging middle class and provided children with a common knowledge and worldview. The first editions sold 7 million copies. By 1879 more than 60 million had been sold, and by 1920 over 122 million. In 1978 they were still in use in some school systems.
The Henry Ford Museum