The Man Behind The McGuffey Readers


One of the best known text books in the history of the American school system is the McGuffey Reader.  Some estimates put the number of these books sold between 1836 and 1960 at over 120 million copies.  This places it in a category alongside Webster’s Dictionary and the Bible for number of copies printed.  Of course they have continued to sell to this day – at a rate of 30,00 copies a year every year since 1961.

McGuffeyThe editor of these famed texts, William Holmes McGuffey, was born near Claysville, Pennsylvania in 1800, but grew up in Ohio.  The son of Scottish immigrants, McGuffey was raised in a household that fostered strong opinions on religious beliefs and the value of education.   These influences carried over into his adult life.  An interesting fact about W.H. McGuffey was that he had a remarkable memory and was known to memorize entire books of the bible.

At age 14, McGuffey became a roving teacher.  His first assignment had him in a one room schoolhouse with 48 students.  It wasn’t unusual for the young McGuffey to work 11 hour days, six days a week as he taught in a series of frontier schools in Kentucky and Ohio.  And in most of these schools, since few textbooks were available, the children brought their own books, primarily the Bible.

During this time, McGuffey also pursued his own education, eventually graduating from Washington College in 1826.  Shortly thereafter, he accepted a position as Professor of Languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  A year later, he married Harriet Spinning.

McGuffey soon acquired a reputation as a lecturer on biblical and moral topics.  When Truman and Smith, a small publishing firm in Cincinnati, became interested in creating a series of graded readers for primary level students, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe, a longtime friend of McGuffey, who recommended him for the assignment.  The year was 1836 and within a year of signing the contract McGuffey completed two of the four books in the commissioned series.  For his work he received $1,000.  The next year he completed two additional books.  The fifth and sixth books in the series were later completed by his brother Alexander in the 1840s.

McGuffey Readers contained stories, poems, speeches and essays.  They were among the first student texts in the nation designed to be progressively challenging with each volume.  The first Reader introduced the alphabet, employed the phonetic method of learning words and other basics.  Once a student had mastered those skills, the second Reader used vivid stories and placed an emphasis on understanding th

e meanings of sentences.  The third Reader, which was equivalent of a current 5th grade text, focused on the definitions of words.  The fourth Reader taught students advanced reading and comprehension skills.  Unlike previous texts which employed uninteresting lists and memorization, McGuffey threaded new vocabulary words within the context of literature, gradually introducing new words while repeating the old.

A hallmark of McGuffey’s Readers was their strong moral tone.  He believed spirituality and education were essential and intertwined in the fostering of a healthy society.  The works selected for inclusion in his Readers, besides teaching the basics of reading and grammar, were designed to teach principles of religion, morality and patriotism.   They also included themes on nature, games, manners and proper attitudes toward family, God, companions, authority figures, the less fortunate and animals.  In these works, right was always victorious and wrong was always punished.  The stories emphasized goodness, truth, honor and strength.  These books helped to frame nineteenth century America’s morals and values, tastes and character.


McGuffey also had strong beliefs on how teachers should conduct their classes.  He suggested that teachers read aloud to their students, he listed questions after each story to test comprehension and encouraged teachers to study the lessons as well.

Gradually, other texts began to replace the McGuffey Readers in the schoolroom.  The call for more rigorous grade distinctions, less emphasis on morality and spirituality, and a changing view of teaching methods speeded up the decline in their usage.  But they have never completely disappeared from the scene and are still in use today, especially in the home schooling environment.

McGuffey penned very few other works in subsequent years.  He advanced in his career in education, taking positions of  progressively greater responsibility, including college president, until he retired as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia.  McGuffey died in 1873, and is remembered as a great philanthropist and as a man who found success as an educator, lecturer and author.

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
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25 thoughts on “The Man Behind The McGuffey Readers”

  1. Hi Winnie! Thanks for the fascinating and informative post. I mention the McGuffey Reaer in my October 2010. The heroine wants to teach at a girls’ school. I enjoyed the details here!

  2. Great stuff, Winnie. I knew about the McGuffey readers, but not about the man himself. Imagine teaching at age 14? Wow. I wish we still had the morality and spirituality of learning in our public schools that he instituted.

  3. Hi Winnie, I enjoyed all the info on the McGuffey Readers and their creator. I own a copy that was passed down through my husband’s family. It’s fun reading.


  4. Vickie – glad you enjoyed the post. And fun that you’re including them in you book – I first heard about McGuffey Readers through an historical romance

    Karen – yes the idea of teaching at age fourteen blew me away too. That’s a ninth grader in our terms – can you imagine?

  5. Elizabeth – yes, I like that he tried to incorporate strong moral principles along with his other teachings

    Janet – ooooh, how cool to have one of the Readers themselves and not just a reproduction

  6. Winnie, this is so interesting. I’ve heard of the McGuffey Reader, mostly just mentioned briefly, so I loved learning more about the earliest textbook. I can’t believe he taught school at 14 years old. Wow! But evidently he knew he needed more education. Glad he went to college and finished his studies. Neat that he became a professor. I think schools today would a lot better off if they still used these Readers. At least the students would have better morals.

  7. Good morning, Winnie!

    Wonderful and educational post — I love this line:

    A hallmark of McGuffey’s Readers was their strong moral tone. He believed spirituality and education were essential and intertwined in the fostering of a healthy society.

    I so agree with this and wish it were still a part of our educational system. Unfortunately, our educational system is more about children “fitting into” the new global community than it is about spirituality and education being married. Thanks for the wonderful information.

  8. I loved this post! I have a reprint of a Third Grade McGuffey’s Reader and it is a wonderful book. I think that is why I bought The Book of Virtues–it reminded me of a McGuffey’s reader.
    When I taught 3rd grade, I would use the stories from the reprint and the kids really liked the them. I would like to get a 5th grade McG Reader as that is the grade I now teach.
    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  9. Estella – glad you enjoyed the post and learned something new. Always interesting to hear ‘the rest of the story’

    Deb – how cool to own one of these readers, and to actually be able to use it in your own teaching. I’ll bet your students really came away the better for it.

  10. Great post, Winnie! My grandmother taught in a one-room school as a teenager, and I loved the old readers she used to have at her home when I was young. Being Canadian they were Royal Readers, but they had the same philosophy as the McGuffey’s – moral educaltion hand in hand with academics. It doesn’t surprise me that home-schoolers turn to these books to teach their children. I think we could do a lot worse than to use them in our schools.

  11. Interesting post. I wish that todays reading books were lessons on morality. So much of the new readers have so many unusual but ‘tested’ ways of teaching. The old is still the best in my mind.

  12. I love looking through old textbooks. The history and geography books are interesting for how much things have changed. I have several copies of the McGuffey Reader, most are reproductions, but I do have at least one old one. Old books have so much character.

  13. Jennie – How cool to have access to first person accounts like this in your own family

    Connie – You’re right, we could certainly take lessons from some of our ancestors practices

    Patricia – I’m with you on enjoying what one can find between the pages of vintage books. It sure does fire the imagination…

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