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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

McGuffey's Readers

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, June 21, 2009

The “McGuffey Readers” are probably the best-known schoolbooks in our nation.


It is estimated that more than 122 million copies were sold between 1832 and 1960, placing it in the same category with the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary for the most book sales.


It seems that many people have a McGuffey Reader tucked away that was used by one of their ancestors in their educational process.


Many times in my library career someone has brought me one of those cherished books to place within the library’s collections.


Most people have great memories of their use, or their ancestor’s use of McGuffey in school.


William Holmes McGuffey was born in 1800 near Claysville, Pa., with his family moving to Ohio shortly thereafter.


By the age of 14, McGuffey was teaching in a one-room school house near Calcutta, O.


In the early 19th century, one-room schools housed children of a multitude of ages, and it was hard to find appropriate textbooks to handle the span of ages.


After graduating from Washington College in 1826, McGuffey married and moved to Oxford, O. to become Professor of Languages at Miami University.


It was here that he created his series of Readers for the Cincinnati publishing firm of Truman and Smith.


His first four Readers were completed in 1836-1837; his brother Alexander finished the fifth and sixth Readers in the 1840s.


William Holmes McGuffey served as President of the Cincinnati College from 1836-1839, before moving to the same position at Ohio University.


He finished his college career at the University of Virginia, where he died in 1873.


Most schools used the first two Readers which emphasized phonics and identification of letters and arrangements into words, followed by understanding of word meanings.


Major revisions of the 1836-37 Readers were done in 1879 as production shifted to a variety of publishers including one in Wheeling.


It is likely that most of the McGuffey Readers loved and remembered by their users dated from 1880-1920 when the American Book Company assumed production.


Constant revisions were done to the text over the years, so the book studied by students in the 1830s was quite different from the books of the 1880s.


The McGuffey Readers have seen numerous reprints in the years since 1920 as the work moved out of copyright.


Two interesting points about the Readers; until 1857 the name “McGuffey” was not contained in the title, but the name was simply listed as an author.


Secondly, the title of the books is “McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader,” often confused with the word “electric.”


“Eclectic” means that the subject is selected from a variety of sources, and has no connection to electric power, which is a completely different word.


A common question with McGuffey Readers is their value in today’s antiquarian book market.


Generally, they are not valuable since so many were published, and if actively used in a school, their condition is usually poor.


Exceptions are copies in good condition, or early copies from the 1830s.


Watch for reprints, they are often hard to identify and almost appear to be 19th century originals.