William Holmes McGuffey: A Textbook Case

In the days of American one-room schools, a lone teacher might have two dozen students ranging in age from six to 21, and when they could they brought Bibles to class, the only books they had from which to learn how to read. In 1836 the paradigm shifted when a schoolteacher named William Holmes McGuffey published the first of a series of readers.

McGuffey was born in 1800 and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the son of immigrant Scots who lived by Calvinist precepts and raised their children to believe in education and the Bible. McGuffey attended public school, but he was tutored in Latin by a local minister. McGuffey became an itinerant teacher at age fourteen, visiting schoolhouses in Ohio that contained dozens of students of wildly varying ages and abilities. Their Bibles were no mystery to the young man, who had memorized long passages.

After obtaining an education in the classics, McGuffey finally graduated from college at 26 and accepted a position as a professor of languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was known there as a lecturer on moral and religious subjects. He married in 1827 and had a long career at the college level, serving at Woodward College in Cincinnati and Ohio University and ending his career as a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia.

When a Cincinnati-based publishing firm considered producing a series of four graded readers in 1835 for use in American classrooms, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who would later write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, recommended her friend McGuffey.  The Truman and Smith firm retained McGuffey to write and compile these readers.

The initial reader came out in 1836. It taught reading through phonics, the sounds that letters and groups of letters make. The second one used stories and poems instead of memorization to reinforce understanding, repeating words from earlier lessons while introducing new words. The third book in the series was written at a level intended for late elementary students, and the fourth was intended for those who would be recognized today as late middle schoolers. McGuffey’s brother Alexander created volumes five and six in the series.

William McGuffey died in 1873. He had lived the life he preached, one of morality and religious values. He had given charitably for the relief of poor and African-Americans. He had also brought about a revolution in U.S. education and influenced generations of American children. Thirty years after Readers were first published, industrialist Henry Ford purchased and distributed copies for schools throughout the United States. He wanted every child to be affected as much by them as he had been. By 1890 more than 100 million McGuffey Readers had been sold, and they introduced lessons of virtue and integrity to virtually every schoolchild in America over the second half of the 19th century.

The earlier McGuffey Readers conveyed the Protestant values of the author, but in the America of the mid-19th century these were values shared by the overwhelming majority of the population. The Readers were full of such titles as “The Kind Little Girl,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “The Honest Boy and the Thief” and “Happy Consequences of American Independence.” By 1880 the readers had shifted the focus of their texts from religious to civil morality to reflect a less homogenous society. Later, publishers found that they could make more money selling workbooks that were used up every year than readers that, with careful treatment, might last several years. Even today, however, reprints are used by tutors and in homeschools, particularly where traditional Protestant values are protected and nurtured.



“McGuffey’s Readers – 1836.” http://www.alphaphonics.com/guffy.htm. Accessed 18 May, 2017.

“William H. McGuffey.” Ohio History Central. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/William_H._McGuffey

“William Holmes McGuffey and His Readers.” Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. National Park

Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior. https://www.nps.gov/jeff/learn/historyculture/upload/mcguffey.pdf.

January 1993. Accessed 18 May, 2017.