McGuffey Readers were a series of graded primers that were widely used as textbooks in American schools from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, and are still used today in some private schools and in homeschooling.
It is estimated that at least 120 million copies of McGuffey's Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960, placing its sales in a category with the Bible and Webster's Dictionary. Since 1961 they have continued to sell at a rate of some 30,000 copies a year. No other textbook bearing a single person's name has come close to that mark.
The editor of the Readers, William Holmes McGuffey, was born September 23, 1800, near Claysville, Pennsylvania, and moved to Youngstown, Ohio with his parents in 1802. McGuffey's family had emigrated to America from Scotland in 1774, and brought with them strong opinions on religion and a belief in education; as a result, education and preaching the Gospel were McGuffey's passions. He had a remarkable ability to memorize, and could commit to memory entire books of the Bible. McGuffey became a "roving" teacher at the age of 14, beginning with 48 students in a one-room school in Calcutta, Ohio and at a seminary in the town of Poland, Ohio. The size of the class was just one of several challenges faced by the young McGuffey. In many one-teacher schools, children's ages varied from six to twenty-one. McGuffey often worked 11 hours a day, 6 days a week in a succession of frontier schools, primarily in the state of Kentucky. Students brought their own books, most frequently the Bible, since few textbooks existed.
Between teaching jobs, William McGuffey received a classical education at the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, Pennsylvania. He went on to study at Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College), where he graduated in 1826. That same year he was appointed to a position as Professor of Languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1827, McGuffey married Harriet Spinning, and the couple eventually had five children.
While McGuffey was teaching at Miami, he established a reputation as a lecturer on moral and biblical subjects. In 1835, the small Cincinnati publishing firm of Truman and Smith asked McGuffey to create a series of four graded readers for primary-level students. McGuffey was recommended for the job by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a longtime friend. He completed the first two readers within a year of signing his contract, receiving a fee of $1,000 ($20,000 in 2012 dollars). While McGuffey compiled the first four readers (1836-1837 edition), the fifth and sixth were created by his brother Alexander during the 1840s. The series consisted of stories, poems, essays and speeches. The advanced Readers contained excerpts from the works of well-regarded English and American writers and politicians such as John Milton, Lord Byron and Daniel Webster.
Most schools of the 19th century used only the first two in the series of McGuffey's four readers. The first Reader taught reading by using the phonics method, the identification of letters and their arrangement into words, and aided with slate work. The second Reader was used once the student could read. It helped them to understand the meaning of sentences while providing vivid stories which children could remember. The third Reader taught the definitions of words, and was written at a level equivalent to the modern 5th or 6th grade. The fourth Reader was written for the highest levels of ability on the grammar school level.
McGuffey's Readers were among the first textbooks in the United States designed to become progressively more challenging with each volume. They used word repetition in the text as a learning tool, developing reading skills through challenging students using the books. Sounding-out, enunciation and accents were emphasized. Colonial-era texts had offered dull lists of 20 to 100 new words per page for memorization. In contrast, McGuffey used new vocabulary words in the context of real literature, gradually introducing new words and carefully repeating the old.
McGuffey believed that teachers should study the lessons as well as their students and suggested they read aloud to their classes. He also listed questions after each story, for he believed that asking questions was critical for a teacher to give instruction. The Readers emphasized spelling, vocabulary, and formal public speaking, which, in 19th-century America, was a more common requirement than today.
Although famous as the author of the Readers, McGuffey wrote few other works. McGuffey left Miami University for positions of successively greater responsibility at Cincinnati College, Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and Woodward College in Cincinnati (where he served as president). He ended his career as a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Through the Civil War and following years, McGuffey was known for his philanthropy and generosity among the poor and newly emancipated African Americans. William McGuffey died in 1873.
McGuffey is remembered as a conservative theological teacher. He interpreted the goals of public schooling in terms of moral and spiritual education, and attempted to give schools a curriculum that would instill Presbyterian Calvinist beliefs and manners in their students. While these goals were considered suitable for the relatively homogeneous America of the early-to-mid-19th century, they were less so for the increasingly pluralistic society that developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The content of the readers changed drastically between McGuffey's 1836-1837 edition and the 1879 edition. The revised Readers were compiled to meet the needs of national unity and the dream of an American melting pot for the world's oppressed masses. The Calvinist values of salvation, righteousness and piety, so prominent in the early Readers, were excluded from the later versions. The content of the books was secularized and replaced by middle-class civil religion, morality and values. McGuffey's name was featured on these revised editions, yet he neither contributed to them nor approved their content.
Other types of schoolbooks gradually replaced McGuffey's in the academic marketplace. The desire for distinct grade levels, less overtly religious content, and the greater profitability of consumable workbooks, helped to bring about their decline. McGuffey's Readers never entirely disappeared, however. Reprinted versions of his Readers are still in print, and may be purchased in bookstores across the country, including the Museum Shops at the Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, McGuffey's Readers are popular among homeschoolers and in some Protestant religious schools.
The manufacturer Henry Ford cited McGuffey's Readers as one of his most important childhood influences. He was an avid fan of McGuffey's Readers first editions, and claimed as an adult to be able to quote from McGuffey's by memory at great length. Ford republished all six Readers from the 1857 edition, and distributed complete sets of them, at his own expense, to schools across the United States. In 1934, Ford had the log cabin where McGuffey was born moved to Greenfield Village, Ford's museum of Americana at Dearborn, Michigan. In 1936, Ford was an associate editor (along with Hamlin Garland, John W. Studebaker and William F. Wiley) of a collection of excerpts from McGuffey Readers. This 482-page compendium was dedicated to Ford, "lifelong devotee of his boyhood Alma Mater, the McGuffey Readers".
In Henry Ford and the Jews (2002), Neil Baldwin asserts that Henry Ford's self-avowed anti-Semitism originated with his study of McGuffey's as a schoolboy. Baldwin cites numerous anti-Semitic references in the readers to Shylock and to Jews' attacking Jesus and Paul. He also notes the cultural climate to which Ford was exposed as a child had increased anti-Semitism in reaction to greatly increased immigration from eastern Europe.
American composer Burrill Phillips composed a work entitled Selections from McGuffey's Reader, for orchestra, based on poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. It was completed in 1933.
Further reading 
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- John Hardin Best. "McGuffey, William Holmes"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
- Richard D. Mosier. Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers (1947)
- John H. Westerhoff III. McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America (1978).
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- This article incorporates material verbatim from "William Holmes McGuffey and His Readers", a work of The Museum Gazette prepared by The National Park Service and the United States Department of Interior, and in the absence of disclaimer, in public domain according to the NPS website. See also licensing information provided by the Department of Interior.