McGuffey's Readers

Cover of Third Reader

Cover of Third Reader

Before McGuffey, the schoolbook which had educated generations of American youth had been the old New England Primer. Reflecting the stern Calvinism of colonial times, it began the teaching of the alphabet with "A is for Adam" and followed with a sobering couplet: "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." It closed with a funereal poem: "Give ear my children to my words / Build not your house too high. / But always have before your eye, / That you were born to die." From the experiences of his front-porch laboratory school, with lessons crafted at an eight-sided homemade desk, the top of which could be revolved about a pedestal base enabling efficient use of multiple compartments and drawers, McGuffey from 1834 to 1836 wrote the books that were destined to shape American history. In the words of Miami historian Walter Havighurst, from a memorable 1976 bicentennial address. Fifteen sets of School Readers were published between 1820 and 1841, but the McGuffey series ran away from all the rest. By the end of the century their editions had sold more than 100 million copies. What took them into the mainstream of America?


A - E

The first lesson in the First Reader is "A is for Ax." At that time the ax was clearing roads and fields; building barns, dwellings, churches and schoolhouses. On the frontier everything was done by individuals, nothing by organized society. The ax was a one-man implement; it could never be used in an assembly line or on a welfare board. Poet Walt Whitman called it the homely weapon of democracy.

After Ax, in McGuffey's Primer, came other everyday things: Box, Cat, Ox, Sheep, Yoke, Vine. Instead of looking at the graveyard, McGuffey, out here in Ohio, saw the brightness of a new morning. Home from school came a First-Grader with a poem on the sunrise: "The lark is up to meet the morn, / The bee is on the wing, / The ant its labors has begun, / The woods with music ring." This was the spirit of a new nation, not weighted with death but lifted with life to build a future.

The Readers were destined to educate five generations of Americans, spanning the 1830s to the 1920s, generations that would know their author as "the schoolmaster of the nation." Interestingly, with nearly 130 million copies published since the first edition appeared in 1836, McGuffey's Readers are still in print (150,000 copies printed in 1985), and are still being used in some of the schools of Ohio and America today. They are available today from Mott Media.

In 1879 the noted Cincinnati artist Henry Farny, redesigned the Readers. The sketches were highly realistic and closely related to the text. The updated series further expanded the Readers' popularity and helped lift Farny out of what was described as his "starving period". Years later Farny recalled with pride the contribution he had made to the public education.

The high quality of the illustrations, well suited to children's interests, significantly contributed to record sales. Many of the Readers were printed by the American Book Company's Cincinnati plant. The building still stands today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. American Book Company continues to publish books and interactive software.

From "Profile: William Holmes McGuffey" by Dr. Philip Shriver, President Emeritus of Miami University, in Timeline, August/September 1986.