McGuffey Readers

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Scanned cover of McGuffey's First New Eclectic Reader. In center of cover is a black and white illustration of three children reading in a garden with a dog sitting nearby.
McGuffey Reader, 1857

Because of the holidays and the sub-zero temperatures that landed in Ohio last week, this is the first full week of school since mid-December for many Ohio students. We thought we’d mark the occasion by looking at a few McGuffey Readers from Ohioana’s collection.

William Holmes McGuffey was born in 1800 in Pennsylvania. In 1802 his family moved to the Ohio frontier, where he grew up. After graduating from college in Pennsylvania, McGuffey became a traveling instructor in Ohio, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania, where he would take part-time teaching jobs in subscription schools. In 1826 McGuffey became a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He went on to become president of Cincinnati College and Ohio University and later a professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, where he taught until his death in 1873.

Scanned page from 1879 McGuffey Reader. Black and white illustration shows a dog running outdoors. Text says "The dog. The dog ran."
McGuffey Reader, 1879

In the mid-1830s, during his time at Miami, McGuffey wrote the first edition of his Eclectic Readers. By the end of the century they had sold more than 100 million copies. Some historians believe the popularity of the Readers was due to their use of everyday objects (“A is for ax“) and text that both students and parents found upbeat and enjoyable. In 1879 Cincinnati artist Henry Farny redesigned the Readers with realistic sketches that closely followed the text and helped maintain the books’ popularity through the end of the century.

Altogether the Readers educated five generations of schoolchildren. Although their popularity waned in the early 1900s, people remembered McGuffey and his books with a sense of nostalgia. The first McGuffey Society was formed in 1918 in Columbus, Ohio by attorney John F. Carlisle and Edward Wilson, editor of the Ohio State Journal. In the 1930s Henry Ford republished the 1857 edition of the Readers at his own expense for use in company classrooms and had the log cabin in which McGuffey was born moved to his Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Today memorials to McGuffey exist at his Pennsylvania birthplace and at several of the schools where he taught.

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