Remembering McGuffey

McGuffey Statue

Miami faculty with statue of
William Holmes McGuffey

William Holmes McGuffey is no longer remembered for his lectures, his sermons, or his classroom instruction, but for his Readers. The first and second and the McGuffey Primer were published in 1836. The Third and Fourth Readers were copyrighted in 1837. According to family tradition, Mrs. McGuffey prepared the Primer, keeping her authorship secret from a sense of modesty and delicacy. Through her mother, Harriet Spining McGuffey was the descendant of distinguished Puritan preachers and educators. Two of their ancestors, John Davenport III and Abraham Pierson II, were closely associated with the founding and progress of Yale University. Pierson was Yale's first president. The McGuffey Fifth Reader, prepared by Alexander McGuffey, was published in 1844. By that time, Alexander was an attorney and professor of belles-lettres at Woodward College, teaching English literature.

McGuffey's first contract with a publisher for his Readers called for a royalty of 10 per cent until he should receive $1,000. For revisions he received extra pay. After the Civil War, the senior partner of Wilson, Hinkle, and Company arranged to have an annuity paid to McGuffey for the rest of his life. Had McGuffey and his heirs received only one per cent per copy on the Readers, the total would have amounted to about $1,220,000 by 1920.

The firm of Truman and Smith (1834-43) was the first to publish the Reader. W. B. Smith (1843-52), W. B. Smith and Company (1852-63), Sargent, Wilson, and Hinkle (1863-68), Wilson, Hinkle and Company (1868-77), Van Antwerp, Bragg and Company (1877-90), and the American Book Company (1890- ) successively published them. The American Book Company of New York and Cincinnati has revised and attractively modernized some of the Readers. The late Harvey C. Minnich, Dean Emeritus of the School of Education, Miami University, an authority on McGuffey, estimated that, on the average, each copy of the McGuffey Readers was read by ten people.

One bookstore in Dayton, alone, advertised in January 1851, three thousand copies of the McGuffey First Reader, three thousand of the Second Reader, two thousand of the Third Reader, one thousand of the Fourth Reader, and one thousand of the McGuffey Spelling Book.

In fact, the name McGuffey became fixed in the minds of later generations as a reader, not as a person. A man was heard to say, as McGuffey passed by: "There goes old Second Reader." While calling on Dr. Andrew D. Hepburn in Oxford one day, Whitelaw Reid (Miami, Class of 1856) inquired about a portrait on the wall. He was astonished to learn that it was a likeness of William Holmes McGuffey, father of Dr. Hepburn's wife.

"McGuffey had a daughter!" Reid exclaimed. "Why, I always thought he was a reader."

Descendants of McGuffey visit the museum in 2015

Descendants of William Holmes McGuffey visit
the museum in 2015

Certain it is that William Holmes McGuffey, through his Readers, has influenced the formation of American thought in the West more than any other American. The Federated McGuffey Societies of America, of which Dean Minnich was one of the founders, has done much to keep the name of McGuffey before the public. The bronze statue in McGuffey Court of McGuffey Hall on the Miami University campus is largely the result of Dean Minnich's endeavors. Today, McGuffey memorials are found in numerous places.

Text by Dr. William E. Smith, 1973

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