McGuffey’s Readers

In 1830 Cincinnati was the leading center of a new western book trade. Printers had brought movable presses over the mountains and down the Ohio River to supply the demand for reading material on America’s frontier. A stream of almanacs, farm manuals, spelling books, school readers, testaments, and hymn books began to pour from the printer’s presses. Business was good because books printed in Cincinnati cost less than those being shipped across the mountains. But beside the cost, there was a growing sectional consciousness of the new country. “Western books for western people” was a persuasive slogan.
A second-floor room on lower Main Street in Cincinnati housed the small firm of Truman and Smith. Winthrop B. Smith had an idea for a series of Eclectic Readers and he looked for an educator to compile them. In 1833 he proposed the idea to Catharine Beecher who had just opened a school of higher education for women. Catharine was the sister of the future author of
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She declined the task but suggested a professor she knew at Miami University by the name of William McGuffey. Smith then made contact with McGuffey for the publication of six books – a Primer, a Speller, and four Readers – for which the compiler would receive a payment of $1,000.
First and Second Readers were published in 1836; the Primer and the Third and Fourth Readers followed in 1837. By 1843 the series was selling half a million copies a year. Ten years later the series was revised and the Rhetorical Guide was added to the Fifth Reader. This reader became the most famous Reader of all. More than a schoolbook, it was a literary storehouse for family reading


The McGuffey Readers swept southward and westward into thousands of new school districts as settlements spread. The Readers went west in freight wagons and with emigrant caravans; traders packed them into Indian reservations; they turned up in sod schoolhouses on the prairie, in cow towns on the plains and mining camps in the Rockies and the Sierras. By 1860 sales of the Readers passed two million copies a year. When the Cincinnati printers could not fill the orders, other publishers were licensed to produce the McGuffey Readers. Between 1870 and 1890 the series sold sixty million copies. It is said the printing of the McGuffey textbooks made ten millionaires in Cincinnati. The Readers became the basic schoolbooks in nearly every state in the Union.
Why did the McGuffey Reader surpass all other textbooks? The answer lies in the first lesson – “A is for Ax.” While children learned the alphabet, the ax was ringing in every clearing, it was hewing logs for cabins and schoolhouses, and it was changing the mid-continent. After ax came box, cat, and dog; ox, and pig; vine, wren, and yoke – these were all familiar things. The lessons were alive with children at work, at play, at school; girls with dolls, sleds, and jumping ropes. Reading became fun.
In 1932 Henry Ford moved McGuffey’s log cabin birthplace from Claysville, Washington County, Pennsylvania to his museum at Dearborn, Michigan. By that time McGuffey meant the horse and buggy days, the Saturday night bath, the creak of the kitchen pump and the wood box behind the stove, the lost American innocence and piety. He had become a myth as American as Uncle Sam. However, memory lingers. From West Virginia to California McGuffey clubs sprang up, groups of old students held McGuffey reunions and retired schoolmaster formed McGuffey societies. They recalled the lessons of long ago – The Boy Who Cried Wolf! Wolf! ; Mr. Toil and Hugh Idle; Try, Try Again; Henry and the Guide Post; the Honest Boy and the Thief. They wrote odes to the great educator “whose classroom was a nation” and sang hymns to his memory.

(Excerpts were taken from the American Heritage Magazine, August 1957, written by Walter Havighurst, then research professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In a later issue learn about Greersburg Academy in Darlington, Pa. where McGuffey began his formal education that helped him become the president of Miami University.)