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McGuffey Readers

McGuffey Readers were a series of graded primers for grade levels 1-6. They were widely used as textbooks in American schools from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, and are still used today in some private schools and in homeschooling.

It is estimated that at least 120 million copies of McGuffey's Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960, placing its sales in a category with the Bible and Webster's Dictionary. Since 1961, they have continued to sell at a rate of some 30,000 copies a year. Only the Ray's Arithmetic series (1834-1913) matched it in popularity, written by a colleague of McGuffey's and begun in 1834.

The editor of the Readers was William Holmes McGuffey. He was born September 23, 1800 near Claysville, Pennsylvania and moved to Youngstown, Ohio with his parents in 1802. McGuffey's family had emigrated to America from Scotland in 1774, and they had strong opinions on religion and a belief in education. Consequently, education and preaching the Gospel were McGuffey's passions. He had a remarkable ability to memorize and could commit to memory entire books of the Bible.

McGuffey became a "roving" teacher at the age of 14, beginning with 48 students in a one-room school in Calcutta, Ohio and at a seminary in the town of Poland, Ohio. The size of the class was just one of several challenges which the young McGuffey faced. In many one-teacher schools, students' ages varied from six to 21. McGuffey often worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, in a succession of frontier schools, primarily in the state of Kentucky. Students brought their own books, most frequently the Bible, since few textbooks existed.

Between teaching jobs, McGuffey received a classical education at the Greersburg Academy (also called The Old Stone Academy) in Darlington, Pennsylvania. He went on to study at Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College) where he graduated in 1826. That same year, he was appointed to a position as Professor of Languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

  • Best, John Hardin (February 2000). "McGuffey, William Holmes". American National Biography Online. 
  • Mosier, Richard D. (1947). Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers. 
  • Westerhoff III, John H. (1978). McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America. 


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