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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

McGuffey Readers – Student textbooks of the 19th Century by Kaye Spencer #PrairieRosePubs #OldWest #Education

Long before Fun with Dick and Jane and Run Spot Run, there were McGuffey Readers. 

McGuffey Readers—these two words immediately bring to mind the ubiquitous Old West one-room schoolhouse. Well, for me, anyway. I have a set of these Readers. While they aren't first editions, they are true-to-the-original reprints. (enlarge the images to clarify the small print)

So what, exactly, are McGuffey Readers? They are a set of six student textbooks leveled for grades first through sixth. The set also includes a spelling book and a Primer (for the emerging reader). These textbooks were popular in America from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century. McGuffey Readers and the 18th century textbooks, the New England Primer, provided the educational foundation for countless numbers of students. The McGuffey Readers were so successful that they sold more than 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960.¹

The man who created the Readers was William Holmes McGuffey. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1800 to Scottish emigrant parents, and he died in 1873. His mother was his first teacher, and he was an intelligent and curious learner.

William Holmes McGuffey - Image credit below

While he was still quite young, opportunity came his way, and a benevolent preacher took William McGuffey into his home. McGuffey was now in a city where he was able to study surveying, mathematics, and Latin. This gave him the necessary knowledge to enter college, which he eventually did, but his finances were poor, and it took him some time to earn his degrees.

Now, backing up a bit, McGuffey took a job as a teacher in a one-room school house when he was fourteen. He faced the challenge, as did all one-room schoolhouse teachers, of having students ranging in ages from six to twenty-one. He had few resources. The Bible was the primary reading material, since textbooks were not common.

Over the years, and in between his teaching jobs, he attended two colleges, earned his degrees, and eventually gained a position as a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He taught at other universities during his lifetime, too. He was married to Harriet Spining, a judge’s daughter, and they had five children. He was a philanthropist of great generosity. After Harriet died in 1850, he remarried.

McGuffey was a professor at Miami University when he began working on the first four Readers. The content included his “own writings, clippings from periodicals, and selections from standard works”².

Standing on the little portico at the north door, McGuffey assembled the children of the neighborhood for regular reading classes. In his dining room he tested his original theories about teaching children. He noted the pieces they liked best and carefully watched their pronunciation. He seemed to love and understand children.²

McGuffey Reader - Primer level - example pages

William McGuffey put together the first four books, and his brother Alexander completed the fifth and sixth books. The books were designed to become increasingly challenging as the student advanced through the levels. Slate work enhanced the readings. Family lore has it that Mrs. McGuffey authored the Primer, but she kept this a secret out of modesty and delicacy².

The Readers were first published in 1836-1837 and the next edition came out in 1879. This was when they underwent revisions in content and approach to stay current with the mores and societal beliefs of the time. For instance, the original editions reflected McGuffey’s strong Calvinist values with the themes of righteousness and piety written throughout, whereas the 1879 editions reflected a more secularized slant on morality and values. It is interesting to note that by 1879, the Readers still carried McGuffey’s name, but he didn’t approve the content and he didn’t contribute to the revisions.

McGuffey Reader - Spelling book - example pages

Two contributing reasons for the decline in popularity of the McGuffey Readers was schools needed textbooks of less overtly religious content, and the rise of consumable workbooks caught on. However, McGuffey Readers didn’t disappear completely. They still have a following in the private school setting and homeschooling environment.

McGuffey Reader - Second level - example pages

McGuffey Reader - Sixth level - example pages
Hamlet's Soliloquy is on the right-hand side.
My maternal grandmother (b. 1907) used McGuffey Readers during her first years of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in northeastern Colorado (c. 1925). Once she moved to the 'city' (Fort Morgan, Colorado), the 'Dick and Jane' books were the books she taught from. I have many of those books, too.

Are you familiar with McGuffey Readers? I’d love to hear your stories.

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Until next time,

Kaye Spencer


¹Lynch, Matthew. “The Story of American Education and the McGuffey Readers.” The Advocate. 2 September 2018. Web. 14 May 2018.

²Smith, William E. “W. H. McGuffey.”  Miami University, 1973. Web. 14 May 2018.

Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room, Selected Special Collections, McGuffey Reader Collection. 15 November 2006. Web. 14 May 2018.

“McGuffey Readers”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 27 March 2018. Web. 14 May 2018.

McGuffey Readers: Kaye Spencer’s personal collection

William Homes McGuffey - Unknown (, „William Holmes McGuffey“, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons:


  1. What an interesting article. I'd never heard of these, as I'm not American. What an influence these must have had on millions of people.

    1. McGuffey Readers most definitely had a profound influence on the educational experiences of the multitudes. Itinerant teachers carried however many sets they could afford to buy with them as they moved school to school.

  2. How in the world kids used to learn to read from the Bible is beyond me because it is complicated for even adults to grasp in some places. It is so wonderful that McGuffey came up with books that are simple for kids to understand and includes spelling words and helpful information. The books you have shown are actually beautiful in appearance, too.
    Great post, Kaye!

    1. Sarah,

      My set of McGuffey Readers are 'squeaky clean'. I've seen individual books that had been used in classrooms and they aren't as pretty. *wink* I'm with you on the learning to read via the Bible. Holy cow that would have been challenging especially in King James English. Whew!

  3. Great post! I really didn't know much about them.

    1. They are fun to browse. Take the 6th grade level with the soliloquy from Hamlet. 6th grade! When I taught high school English, my 11th graders struggled with Hamlet. I'm impressed with the information in the readers.

  4. I never heard of McGuffey readers before. I'm surprised to learn there was a set of text books distributed widely used by teachers so early. The illustrations look wonderful! Dick and Jane! That immediately brings back early grade school memories! Thanks, Kaye. I always enjoy hearing about your family history too.

    1. Amazon sells McGuffey Readers individually and in sets. You might want to take a look. I learned to read with Dick, Jane, and Spot. I will write up an article on those books for a future post.

  5. I wish I'd known about these books sooner as they would have been useful in the second book of my trilogy. I really should have researched harder to find out about school text books back in the 1890's. This is a great article, Kaye, and how fortunate for you to have this bit of important history at your fingertips. When exactly did the Dick and Jane books come into use? I remember learning from them when I was a child in the 1950's.

    1. As I mentioned in my reply to Patti, I'll do some research on the Dick and Jane books and write an article. I don't know their history, but I do have some early editions of the books.

  6. No McGuffey's but did have the 'Dick and Jane' books. Of course, I made everyone read to me from almost anything before I started reading myself. I remember the Childcraft books. I loved those. Doris

  7. I didn't remember the Childcraft books, so I researched. Once I saw the picture of a set, I remembered having them in school, but not at home. We had a set of World Book Encyclopedias that my parents purchased for me on the monthly plan. I read them to pieces. I also recall HighLights for Children magazine, Capper's Weekly, and Sunset magazine being staples in my house and my grandma's (the elementary teacher).