Wednesday, May 16, 2018

McGuffey Readers – Student textbooks of the 19th Century by Kaye Spencer #SweetheartsoftheWest

Long before Fun with Dick and Jane and Run Spot Run, there were McGuffey Readers. 

McGuffey Readers—these two words immediately bring to mind the ubiquitous Old West one-room schoolhouse. Well, for me, anyway. I have a set of these Readers. While they aren't first editions, they are true-to-the-original reprints. (enlarge the images to clarify the small print)

So what, exactly, are McGuffey Readers? They are a set of six student textbooks leveled for grades first through sixth. The set also includes a spelling book and a Primer (for the emerging reader). These textbooks were popular in America from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century. McGuffey Readers and the 18th century textbooks, the New England Primer, provided the educational foundation for countless numbers of students. The McGuffey Readers were so successful that they sold more than 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960.¹

The man who created the Readers was William Holmes McGuffey. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1800 to Scottish emigrant parents, and he died in 1873. His mother was his first teacher, and he was an intelligent and curious learner.

William Holmes McGuffey
[citing below]
While he was still quite young, opportunity came his way, and a benevolent preacher took William McGuffey into his home. McGuffey was now in a city where he was able to study surveying, mathematics, and Latin. This gave him the necessary knowledge to enter college, which he eventually did, but his finances were poor, and it took him some time to earn his degrees.

Now, backing up a bit, McGuffey took a job as a teacher in a one-room school house when he was fourteen. He faced the challenge, as did all one-room schoolhouse teachers, of having students ranging in ages from six to twenty-one. He had few resources. The Bible was the primary reading material, since textbooks were not common.

Over the years, and in between his teaching jobs, he attended two colleges, earned his degrees, and eventually gained a position as a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He taught at other universities during his lifetime, too. He was married to Harriet Spining, a judge’s daughter, and they had five children. He was a philanthropist of great generosity. After Harriet died in 1850, he remarried.

McGuffey was a professor at Miami University when he began working on the first four Readers. The content included his “own writings, clippings from periodicals, and selections from standard works”².

Standing on the little portico at the north door, McGuffey assembled the children of the neighborhood for regular reading classes. In his dining room he tested his original theories about teaching children. He noted the pieces they liked best and carefully watched their pronunciation. He seemed to love and understand children.²
McGuffey Reader - Primer level - example pages

William McGuffey put together the first four books, and his brother Alexander completed the fifth and sixth books. The books were designed to become increasingly challenging as the student advanced through the levels. Slate work enhanced the readings. Family lore has it that Mrs. McGuffey authored the Primer, but she kept this a secret out of modesty and delicacy².

The Readers were first published in 1836-1837 and the next edition came out in 1879. This was when they underwent revisions in content and approach to stay current with the mores and societal beliefs of the time. For instance, the original editions reflected McGuffey’s strong Calvinist values with the themes of righteousness and piety written throughout, whereas the 1879 editions reflected a more secularized slant on morality and values. It is interesting to note that by 1879, the Readers still carried McGuffey’s name, but he didn’t approve the content and he didn’t contribute to the revisions.

McGuffey Reader - Spelling book - example pages

Two contributing reasons for the decline in popularity of the McGuffey Readers was schools needed textbooks of less overtly religious content, and the rise of consumable workbooks caught on. However, McGuffey Readers didn’t disappear completely. They still have a following in the private school setting and homeschooling environment.

McGuffey Reader - Second level - example pages
McGuffey Reader - Sixth level - example pages
Hamlet's Soliloquy is on the right-hand side.
My maternal grandmother used them in her first years of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in northeastern Colorado (c. 1925). Are you familiar with McGuffey Readers? I’d love to hear your stories.

Until next month,

Kaye Spencer

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¹Lynch, Matthew. “The Story of American Education and the McGuffey Readers.” The Advocate. 2 September 2018. Web. 14 May 2018.

²Smith, William E. “W. H. McGuffey.”  Miami University, 1973. Web. 14 May 2018.

Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room, Selected Special Collections, McGuffey Reader Collection. 15 November 2006. Web. 14 May 2018.

“McGuffey Readers”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 27 March 2018. Web. 14 May 2018.

McGuffey Readers: Kaye Spencer’s personal collection

William Homes McGuffey - Unknown (, „William Holmes McGuffey“, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons:


  1. YOu know, I've heard of these for years, but never was exposed to them. My early 'reading' was making my mother read the Childcraft books to me prior to entering school. Once I started reading, after the 'Dick and Jane' lessons, it was anything I could get my hands on. Thanks to my parents, it was the full set of Childcraft books. Doris

    1. I was never exposed to McGuffey Readers in a learning way, just the Dick and Jane books. Like you, Once I learned to read, no book was safe. Lol

  2. I've searched for McGuffey Readers on eBay on occasion. We found one my sister-in-law was looking for for her father. I have one around here someplace. They are classics. I didn't know they were used up until the 1960's. Interesting post.

    1. Linda, I learned a lot about McGuffey Readers in my research for this article, and I hadn’t known they were so popular for so long. The content is challenging.

  3. Kaye, I'm so pleased to learn more about these books. I had no idea they were used so far into the twentieth century. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? I have one (not a first edition) I used to display on an old school desk. Thank you for your interesting post.

    1. Caroline,

      It would be something to have a first edition set. One would wonder who learned from them, where they traveled, what schools they were in, and who the teachers were who taught from them.

  4. I think it's so grand that you actually own the set of primers by McGuffey. You lucky thing. I loved the pictures of the insides of these books and the illustrations.
    I'm trying to imagine how difficult it must have been attempting to learn to read using the Bible. Oh my word. What a great thing McGuffey did in creating these text books with increasing difficulty and using illustrations to make it even more interesting.
    I have a few old school books from my parents circa 1920's, but nowhere as marvelous as the set you have.
    Such an interesting blog, Kaye.

    1. Sarah,

      I have some old books, too. I’m always on the lookout for oldies. The content in the Readers is more challenging than any reafing and language arts textbooks I used over the years of my career in education.

  5. I loved this blog, Kaye, just like I find all your research articles so interesting. In my sequel I have my heroine fund-raising for more text books for the I have a name I can use. Never had these in school, but I learned to read via Dick and Jane and wasn't there a Spot jump? I look forward to your next article.

    1. Elizabeth,

      You could also have your teacher-heroine need slates and chalk to supplement the books.

  6. What a wonderful post, Kaye. I didn't know how the McGuffey reader came to be. My mom talked about them--she went to school in a VERY small place in Oklahoma, along with my dad--they started 1st grade together. I think because of these books, they both had a deep love for reading, and my mom always loved "old" things, especially books that were old. I have an old set of books called The Bookhouse Books--there are 12 in the set, each one progressively more difficult. The pictures...OH MY GOSH...they are just so wonderful. The set was bought for my oldest sister, and then of course, my middle sister and I both used them, too. I treasure those books. I would love to have a set of the McGuffey Readers, too. I know you treasure yours, for sure!

    1. Cheryl,

      I do love my set, but it would be such a find to come across first editions. *sigh* I also have a few of my grandmother’s Dick and Jane books.


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