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
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.
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¹Lynch, Matthew. “The Story of American Education and the McGuffey Readers.” The Advocate. 2 September 2018. Web. 14 May 2018. http://www.theedadvocate.org/story-american-education-mcguffey-readers/
²Smith, William E. “W. H. McGuffey.” Miami University, miamioh.edu/cca/mcguffey-museum/. 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. https://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/coll/152.html.
“McGuffey Readers”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 27 March 2018. Web. 14 May 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McGuffey_Readers.
McGuffey Readers: Kaye Spencer’s personal collection
William Homes McGuffey - Unknown (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Holmes_McGuffey.jpg), „William Holmes McGuffey“, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Template:PD-1923