The McGuffey Readers, first published in 1836-37, were a set of highly influential school textbooks for use in the elementary and higher grades in the United States. Indeed, owing to their widespread usage over many years, they played an important role in shaping the American character itself. From the year in which they were first published, and for nearly a century thereafter, successive generations of American schoolchildren used these readers to acquire basic literacy skills and to imbibe the moral lessons they taught.
William Holmes McGuffey (1800-73) was the author/compiler of the first four volumes of the first edition of what would eventually become a six-volume set of graded readers. In subsequent years, a series of editors took over the responsibility for the readers, which nevertheless were faithful in retaining their original character as moral shapers of youth.
A major revision in 1879 altered the slant of the readers away from the stark Calvinism which had characterized the earlier versions, but did so without sacrificing the basic religious and moral objectives.
The readers have sold over 125 million copies, and remain in demand among many who are dissatisfied with modern trends in education and seek a return to a more traditional, "values oriented" education of an earlier era.
It was at the request of the fledgling publishing firm of Truman & Smith, of Cincinnati, Ohio, and in accordance with their general plan as to size and number, that William H. McGuffey, then the President of Cincinnati College, was contracted to produce the first edition of the readers. Issued in 1836/37, it consisted of four books which were designed not only to teach the young students how to read, but in the third and fourth numbers of the series, to provide suitably moral and instructive reading examples.
In the same year, 1837, Alexander H. McGuffey, the brother of William H., was engaged to produce a Speller, which presented information on sounds, pronunciation, syllabication, and spelling.
1838 plagiarism lawsuit
This initial publishing venture was soon involved in court litigation brought by a Boston firm (publishers of a competing schools' text, the Worcester Readers) claiming that certain of the selections in the 1836-37 version of the McGuffey Readers violated their copyright holdings. In fact, in December 1838, an injunction was issued against Truman & Smith prohibiting them from further distribution of the materials pending trial on the charges. But by then, the publishers had combed the books and removed all material which could be even unreasonably suspect of offending the copyright statutes and brought forth a new edition - that of 1838 - suitably labeled "Revised and Improved".
The remainder of the suit, dealing with the prior distribution of the original 1836-37 version, was dismissed upon payment of a sum of money to the plaintiffs, although the publishing firm continued to assert that the disputed material was "common property".
The questions surrounding this lawsuit have provoked spirited debate, not only at the time, but in the years since. Opinion is divided on the matter, with critics of Dr. McGuffey asserting that the revision of the material and the payment of money essentially proves the truth of the claims.
The defenders of McGuffey and his publishers, at the time and since, have charged that the plaintiffs were acting out of sectional interests and were resorting to the courts in an attempt to gain leverage for their own pecuniary interests But, whatever the success or failure of such arguments in the realm of public opinion, there still remains the legal and ethical questions surrounding this episode.
In this regard, it may be fairly disputed as to whether the payment of a settlement fee is such a certain indicator of truth as some have averred. It should also be considered that at the time there was an unclear legal situation. The concepts of copyright and plagiarism were evolving, the full legal theory only beginning to be worked out at the time. Indeed, the foundational decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the matter, Wheaton v. Peters, was issued only in 1834.
Finally, in an editorial in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Catherine Beecher (who was originally approached by the publishers to compile the Readers, but declined) argued, among other things, that the actions of McGuffey were in keeping with the commonly accepted methods and practices of producing textbooks in those days and that, indeed, the plaintiffs themselves had followed this same practice in the compilation of their readers.
Revisions through 1853
A few years after this unfortunate incident, in 1841, Alexander H. McGuffey was contracted to produce the Rhetorical Guide which was to be used alongside the Readers as a continuation of the series. When, in 1843, the first four Readers were again revised and reissued as "Newly Revised", the Rhetorical Guide was adduced to the lot as the Fifth Reader of the series.
For the 1843 edition, the first and second readers were revised by Daniel G. Mason, while the third and fourth were revised with contributions from Dr. Timothy Stone Pinneo. All revisions were approved by both Dr. McGuffey and the publishers.
Then, in 1853, the entire series was reordered and issued as a six-volume set, labeled the New McGuffey Readers. For this work, Dr. Pinneo was responsible. And thus the readers came to assume the familiar six-volume structure by which they were subsequently known.
Major revision of 1879
In the years following the Civil War, there was a demand in the schools for readers which would contribute to national unity as well as to the assimilation of the increasing number of immigrants. At the same time, the McGuffey Readers were facing increasing pressure from competitors. The publishing firm which at that time had the rights to the readers decided to bring forth a new version under the general editorship of Henry H. Vail. Reflecting the developing method of school textbook production by collective authorship, a number of different assistant editors were brought in to work on the project.
The result was the "Revised Edition" of 1879. The three lower readers were almost entirely new. The fourth reader had largely new material, while the fifth and sixth readers (consisting mainly of selections from well-known authors) sported new features in a short biographical introduction to each of the selections by named authors and the addition of explanatory notes.
But the main change was a decidedly more secular approach to the material, softening or removing much of the Presbyterian Calvinism which had marked the first (and subsequent) editions. What remained was the overall high moral tone exhibited by a largely non-denominational religious approach featuring a general civic morality and piety, teaching such civic virtues such as thrift, hard work, honesty, and kindness.
World-view of the McGuffey Readers
Religion was the central component of William H. McGuffey's life. He was not only an educator, but also an ordained Presbyterian minister in whose mind education and religion were never separate. He believed that the chief end of education was the inculcation of a Christian character and pious life in the recipient.
The world depicted in the 1836/37 version of the Readers - the only version which McGuffey himself was fully responsible for - was a God-centered world wherein man's chief end is to gain salvation. The God of these Readers is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. He is not only the creator, but also the sustainer and governor of the world.
According to the picture presented in this version of the Readers, man's life and even his thoughts should be directed with constant attention on the life in the world to come. It is in preparation for this next life that he has been put here on the earth as a type of testing ground.
Continued appeal of the McGuffey Readers
In colonial America, the basic function of education was to prepare the young students for life as good Christians. This approach had its origins during the Reformation when literacy was promoted as a means of enabling people to read the Bible. Following the Revolution, a gradual change occurred, in which it was considered increasingly important that the citizens of the newly free Republic, based on the voting franchise, be prepared for participation as a self-governing people.
At the same time, an effort was made, most notably by Noah Webster, with his Dictionary of the English Language and his Elementary Spelling Book, to create a lexicon and instructional material uniquely "American" in tone.
Fundamental to William H. McGuffey's attitude towards education was his idea that education should not only impart literacy skills and knowledge generally, but should also serve to foster character and Christian values in the pupils. Hence, the selections which McGuffey chose to include in the 1836/37 edition of his Readers were characterized by a strong moral and religious component.
In those years, the influence of religion in the United States had reached its peak, and McGuffey's Readers only reflected this fact. Since that time, the increasing secularization of society, and with it, the schools, has been a long-term trend. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s on school prayer were, for many, a watershed moment in that trend.
This trend towards secularization in our society and in the schools was connected, in the minds of many, with developing social problems such as drugs, crime, lax sexual mores, etc. The antidote to these problems was seen as a return to the values of an earlier era. And while not all who felt this way looked to the McGuffey Readers as one component of this antidote, many did.
By 1920 the hey-day of the McGuffey Readers, which were based upon the phonics method of teaching reading, had come to a close and by the end of that decade school texts based on the word method had swept the field. Some time later, in 1955, Rudolf Flesch authored a widely read and much discussed book, Why Johnny Can't Read, which delivered a scathing indictment of America's schools and educators in which he claimed that they had failed to teach America's young to read properly and called for a return to the use of phonics in teaching reading and writing.
While Flesch never called for a return to the McGuffey Readers in his advocacy of phonics, a number of those who agreed with his analysis did in fact put forth the Readers as either one possible or the preferred implementation of the phonics method.
Any society and any culture seeks to perpetuate itself by passing on its values and way of life to its young, for only in that way can the society or culture survive. Child rearing and education are the chief means for accomplishing this task.
Thus it is that the cultural norms, values, and way of life of a society can be seen in the program of instruction for the young. In a literate society, this can be seen particularly in the material used for reading instruction which will naturally reflect the values of the society. This is perhaps even more the case with the McGuffey Readers as they were compiled by an individual who held that there was an integral connection between education and values. Indeed, he saw the infusion of such values as the fundamental purpose of education.
The result is a set of readers which provide a window into 19th century America, its values, way of life, and thought patterns.
Longing for simpler times
The McGuffey Readers, both the 1836-37 and the 1879 versions, reflect a period of time in American history from before the massive expansion of the industrial / technological society in the 20th century. It was a world without the automobile, instant communications, and electronic entertainment. It also lacked the highly centralized political and economic institutions and the cultural and social levelling which comes in its wake.
Along with the creature comforts such a development has brought, have come a variety of social ills and a social atomization which seems to leave the individual with less control over his or her own life and fate and at the mercy of large, sometimes incomprehensible social forces.
Criticisms of the McGuffey Readers
The McGuffey Readers are not without their critics on all of the above points. Skepticism that a return to the values-based education of the past, as represented by the Readers, would cure or even significantly ameliorate modern social ills can certainly be entertained.
For one thing, the impact of the schools on such matters can and often has been overestimated by both the champions of universal education and their detractors. Such an overestimation by either side tends to devalue the weight of the ordinary workings of social and economic forces in the society. If, especially in the past, the more zealous proponents of the common (public) schools have tended to overpromise the good which can be accomplished - ranging from the final triumph of democracy, enlightenment, and humanitarian values to the elimination of class and social barriers and the reduction or elimination of poverty and crime - the critics have tended, for their part, to blame the educational system for all the ills of society.
In addition, the nature of the values taught in the McGuffey Readers has also come under scrutiny. Henry Steele Commager, in his Foreword to a 1962 republication of the 1879 edition of the Fifth Reader, cogently summarized this position as follows:
- "Yet for all its preoccupation with religion, the morality of the Readers was materialistic and worldly. It taught a simple system of rewards and punishments. Virtue was rarely its own reward. . ."
At this point, Commager cites a short list of example stories - one which could be much expanded - from the Readers featuring virtuous behavior rewarded with gold, silver, and manna, while improper behavior is answered with punishments as terrible as they were swift. He concludes:
- "Nothing was left to the imagination, nothing to chance, and nothing, one is tempted to say, to conscience. It is an intriguing - but unanswerable - question whether this kind of moral arithmetic did more harm than good; those who are today infatuated with the morality of the Readers might reflect that the generation most elaborately and persistently exposed to it . . . was probably the most materialistic generation in our history.."
Turning to another aspect of the continuing appeal of the McGuffey Readers, the longing for the good ol' days, or the simpler, less hurried ways of the past can be seen as just one manifestation of the mythic view of human history as the story of the gradual decline from a presumed, and longed for, Golden Age. As with all such visions, the view of the past is invariably an idealized, Romanticised vision of the past.
The world of the Readers is the world of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn (but without slavery) with, at least in the 1836/37 version, a Colonial New England preacher thrown in. It is a small town, rural world of farm, field, and stream replete with barefoot boys and fishing holes. Absent are any hint of urban squallor and violence, conflict over religion or prejudice against immigrant groups. In the post-1879 version, there is no hint of the robber barons, labor strife, or railroad company towns. In short, it is the idealized vision of the historical re-enactor.
American history as seen in the Readers is also selectively presented. Then, as now, school textbook publishers hewed a very conservative course in an effort to not offend any significant market constituency. The publishers of the McGuffey Readers had a large market in the southern states and thus, in the 1879 edition, there is scarcely a hint of anything touching upon the Civil War. Not even Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or the Battle Hymn of the Republic made it through the selection cut.
Current status of McGuffey's Readers
The period immediately following World War I and lasting into the 1950s and 1960s saw a wave of McGuffey nostalgia fueled by the memories of those who had used the Readers during their school years. Several McGuffey Societies were formed, monuments built and dedicated, a McGuffey Museum opened, and some reminiscences published. As the generation with immediate experience of the McGuffey Readers in the context of their schooling and the late 19th century times passed away, the Societies faded or disbanded.
Later, a second wave of McGuffeyites came to the fore. This second wave lacked the direct experiential contact with the Readers in the context of the times in which they were used, and thus could not properly be said to be nostalgia based. Instead, they based their admiration for the McGuffey Readers mainly on the conservative and Christian values which they embodied, and partly on the pedagogical approach of phonics teaching.
In recent years, there has been a decoupling of the pedagogy of phonics teaching from the values debate of the culture wars as more as more teaching professionals and experts have come to appreciate and value the use of phonics in the teaching of reading and writing. However, this decoupling has not yet (if it ever will) extended to the Readers themselves which still remain very much charged with the issues surrounding the culture wars as they impinge upon education.
Indeed, today the Readers, with sales of several tens of thousands of copies per year, remain largely the domain of Christian homeschoolers. Nevertheless, their appeal is not single-issue based. And while their appeal today rests mainly on the Christian values embodied by the Readers, the overall attraction is based upon a nexus of factors in addition to that, including their value as cultural embodiments of Americana and the way in which they represent a simpler, less hectic lifestyle of the past.
Contents and description of the 1836/37 edition
Eclectic Spelling Book
In 1838, Alexander McGuffey, the brother of William H. McGuffey, drew up for publication the Eclectic Progressive Spelling Book which stated on its cover, "Designed to precede the Eclectic Readers". The basis of instruction in this Spelling Book was the alphabet, or spelling, method, then and for a very long time prior to then, the almost universal method of teaching children to read.
In this method, as employed in the Eclectic Spelling Book, first the alphabet was learned. Then, there were some lessons involving syllables of two letters, followed by lessons involving syllables of three letters and monosyllabic three letter words. These syllables and words were arranged in columns over several pages. From there, longer words and words of two (or more) syllables, with proper accents indicated, were given in subsequent lessons, all arranged neatly in columns.
Pronunciation was indicated by a system of "superiors" which were numerals printed directly above the vowel of the word indicating its sound quality (for example, a "1" over the "a" in cane would indicate a long a; the numeral "4' would indicate short a, and so forth).
Eclectic First Reader
The first reader in the original 1836/37 series was predicated upon the child already knowing how to read, having learnt that skill via some other source, such as the Spelling Book which was published to accompany the series. More specifically, the child should already have within his knowledge the 50 or so most common phonograms, the ability to blend the sounds into words, and the ability to spell words and write and understand simple sentences.
The book itself consists of 45 lessons, about half accompanied by wood cuts. The reading selections are given without any diacritical markings or "superiors" and nearly all are followed by a vocabulary listing (again, without any pronunciation markings) for practice in spelling and pronunciation. With few exceptions, the words used in this first reader are of one or two syllables only.
Contents and description of the 1879 Revised Edition
Upon the issuance of the Revised Edition in 1879, the publishers, in their Preface to the series, stated: "The plan of the book enables the teacher to pursue the Phonic Method, the Word Method, the Alphabet Method, or any combination of these methods." While this may be true, the Readers themselves were almost always used then, as they are today, in connection with the use of phonics to instruct the pupil in learning how to read and write. Indeed, they were constructed with this method especially in mind.
The Primer consists of 52 lessons, numbered using Roman numerals, with every fifth lesson being a review of the previous material. Each lesson is illustrated by an engraving and commences with a new word list, the words being presented phonetically, that is, with diacritical markings. The diacritical markings are used only in the word list and are not repeated in the reading exercises. There are a total of 318 vocabulary words thus presented in the Primer, or about six words per lesson. With a very few exceptions (a couple of proper names, some contractions) all are monosyllabic.
The reading passages themselves are not yet stories, but vignettes keyed to the engravings. The subject matter reflects life on the farm and in rural and small town settings in 19th century America. We see such scenes as the one room schoolhouse, a barefoot boy fishing with a willow pole at the local pond, cows being brought in from pasture, skating on a frozen pond, the mill by the creek, laying in a store of wood for the winter, and a variety of typical animals and wildlife seen on a farm. In contrast to the first edition (1836-37) of the McGuffey Readers, only the final two stories are specifically religious, though all of them reflect a general civic piety and morality.
But the core of any primer or reader intended for phonics based instruction is the presentation of the basic sounds (about 44 in number) of the English language. In each lesson, a few sounds are introduced along with words which contain just those sounds and sounds learned previously. The reading passage demonstrates the use of the words in the context of sentences illustrated by an engraving. The first several lessons concentrate on the basic sounds (vowels and consonants), but gradually the substitutes and double letter sounds (such as sh and ck in lessons XI and XII, respectively) are also introduced. While it would be possible for the child to learn all of the sounds first, before proceeding to a reader, the introduction of a few sounds at a time in connection with the illustrative words and sentences allows the learner to acquire the phonics skills gradually in the course of working through the lessons.
First Eclectic Reader
LESSON XLII. (Illustration: Girl picking flowers.)
"A little girl went in search of flowers for her mother. It was early in the day, and the grass was wet. Sweet little birds were singing all around her.
And what do you think she found besides flowers? A nest with young birds in it.
While she was looking at them, she heard the mother bird chirp, as if she said, "Do not touch my children, little girl, for I love them dearly."
The little girl now thought how dearly her own mother loved her.
So she left the birds. Then picking some flowers, she went home, and told her mother what she had seen and heard."
(From McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader) 
Second Eclectic Reader
Third Eclectic Readers
Fourth Eclectic Readers
Fifth Eclectic Reader
The Fifth Reader begins with an introductory section concerning the reading of literature, including articulation ("Articulation is the utterance of the elementary sounds of a language, and their combinations"), inflections ("Inflections are slides of the voice upward or downward"), accent("In every word which contains more than one syllable, one of the syllables is pronounced with a somewhat greater stress of voice. ... This syllable is said to be accented."), emphasis ("A word is said to be emphasized when it is uttered with a greater stress of voice than the other words wit which it is connected"), modulation ("Modulations includes the variations of the voice."), and poetic pauses ("The object of these is to promote the melody"). Various rules are given concerning these subjects, with examples. The whole is followed by a section of exercises illustrating the rules and providing practice therein.
Next come the reading passages themselves, numbering 117. Included are selections from Louisa May Alcott, William Ellery Channing, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Shakespeare, Robert Southey, John Greenleaf Whittier, and, of course, the Bible, with sometimes several selections from each. Over 80% of the reading passages are by named authors. It was the intent that the students would read the passages out loud in front of the class so as to obtain practice and instruction in such matters in keeping with the introductory material on reading.
Most of the selections have a strong moral quality and, should anyone miss the point, the moral is frequently explained in rather direct terms in the closing paragraph of the selection. Those selections which are by a named author are prefaced with a brief introductory paragraph giving some rudimentary details concerning the author and his/her life and works. All the selections are followed by a section of vocabulary definitions in which the more unfamiliar words are explained.
Sixth Eclectic Reader
Eclectic Spelling Book
- To cite just a couple of examples, Jennifer Monaghan, in The Textbook as Commercial Enterprise, states; "Not only can we not credit McGuffey with any of the subsequent success of the readers, as they were revised by others, but even what we know he did write is somewhat compromised by charges of plagiarism. . . . The truth of this allegation was acknowledged by an out-of-court settlement in favour of the Worcester team for $2,000, as well as the immediate revision of the offending McGuffey Readers." Again, James H. Rodabaugh, in a review of a book by H.C. Minnich, William Holmes McGuffey and his Readers, states; "In this production McGuffey's intellectual honesty is certainly questionable. . . .The charge was made that McGuffey had copied many of Worcester's original articles, rules, directions, notes, questions and exercises, and had adopted the same general plan as that of the Worcester Readers. . . . Suffice it to say, the court indicated a reaction favorable to Worcester, and McGuffey's publishers settled out of court for the sum of $2000. The publications already begun were halted and adequate revisions were made."
- In the Preface to the 1838 edition, explaining the circumstances of the new version, the publishers made this explicit and added their own clear appeal to western sentiment over against the eastern establishment. More recently, Minnchin, in his 1936 book, McGuffy and his Readers likewise attributed the suit to the business and sectional interests of the plaintiffs.
- Then, as now, such settlements are often agreed upon as simply a way of getting the suit "off the table" and continuing with one's business as well as avoiding the expenses of conducting the matter in the courts. In this connection, if we are to believe the claims of the publishers to have sold 700,000 copies of their Readers by 1841, and given the price of the items in question, the $2000 payment represented a relatively small amount of their total revenue (around 2%) and far less of what they could expect to garner in future sales.
- "You can not steal the smallest pin without it being a sin, nor without it being seen by that eye which never sleeps" we read in the story of the Little Chimney Sweep in the First Reader.
- Also from the First Reader,in the story entitled The Sun is Up, we read:
:"God made the moon and all the stars. How good God is to us; He gives us all we have, and keeps us alive.
:"God sees and knows all things, for God is everywhere. He sees me when I rise from my bed, when I go out to walk and play. And when I lie down to sleep at night, he keeps me from harm.
- For example, the story from the First Reader quoted above (The Sun is Up). Also, there is the story of George Washington and the garden in the Second Reader wherein young George Washington comes across some sprouting cabbages which were so previously arranged by the young man's father as to spell out the youngster's name. The object lesson of this is that such evident design is proof of a creator just as the evident design of the world itself is clear proof of a Creator of the world.
- Commager was writing in 1962 and thus did not have an opportunity to observe - or comment upon - the current generation which was, most certainly, not reared on the McGuffey Readers.
- No disparagement is intended by the use of the word mythic in this connection. In fact, the Golden Age mythos can be seen as a necessary counterpoint to the equally - and perhaps more dangerous - mythos of the Idea of Progress, namely, that at least recent human history can be seen as the continual upward trend and march of progress towards a better life. This latter view may in fact be nothing more than a western, and recent, conceit.
- Even those who view the Readers in a favorable light acknowledge their selective nature in this respect. John H. Westerhoff, in his book McGuffey and his Readers states: "Interestingly, children using the 1836-37 editions of McGuffey's Readers would not have been aware that there were blacks or Jews nor, for that matter, would they have been aware that there was slavery or any other social problem, though there were poor individuals in need of charity."
- McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader, Revised Edition by William Holmes McGuffey Project Gutenberg