William Holmes McGuffey and His Popular Readers
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey reading a book, circa 1860. / THF110186
William Holmes McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were both successful and influential. Between 1836 (when the readers were first introduced) and 1850, seven million copies of them were sold. During the second half of the 1800s, they became the most widely circulated textbooks in the United States, influencing the outlooks and perspectives of such luminaries as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and the Wright brothers. How did the readers come to be, and why did they have such tremendous appeal?
A letter from President Taft to Henry Ford testifying about the importance of McGuffey Readers in his life, 1924. / THF96603
Many factors contributed to the creation and content of McGuffey’s readers, including his heritage, family background, and experiences growing up.
William Holmes McGuffey’s family was part of a group of immigrants to America who were often referred to as Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish). These people were Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands who had migrated to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. Religious restrictions and economic conditions had motivated members of this group to emigrate to America during the 1700s, and many of them settled in Pennsylvania—a colony that offered affordable land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. As land became increasingly unobtainable in the East, many Scots-Irish immigrants headed west and south to the edges of European settlement. In these scattered frontier communities, the Presbyterian Church remained a stabilizing force, and its tenets would become a major influence on the later McGuffey Readers.
The McGuffey family followed a similar pattern of migration to other Scots-Irish. William Holmes McGuffey’s paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, landed in Philadelphia in 1774, then moved farther west to York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved again, to Washington County in western Pennsylvania—then considered the edge of the settlement or the western frontier. There, cheap land had recently become available to white settlers (see “William Holmes McGuffey’s Birthplace” for more on this). William’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, had also moved to Washington County about this same time. Their farmstead, named Rural Grove, was close to the McGuffey place. This was undoubtedly how William’s parents, Alexander McGuffey and Anna Holmes, met.
The McGuffey birthplace as it stands today in Greenfield Village. / THF1969
Alexander and Anna were married just before Christmas 1797. Their first home was the log house now in Greenfield Village. This house, situated on the Holmes farmstead, had likely been Henry and Jane Holmes’s initial home before they constructed a larger frame house. Alexander and Anna’s first three children were born here: Jane (1799), William Holmes (1800), and Henry (1802).
William’s parents played a particularly significant role in young William’s life. His restless father, Alexander, embodied the values of individualism, adventure, risk-taking, and making one’s own way in the world. His mother, Anna—who was serious, pious, intelligent, and literate—enjoyed the stability of the Scots-Irish community in which they lived.
This 1870 Currier & Ives print of a settler’s family and their log home gives an impression—albeit a romanticized one—of what living on the sparsely settled frontier might have been like. / THF200600
In 1802—only two years after William Holmes was born—Alexander’s restlessness spurred the young family to move west into the Ohio Territory, to a sparsely settled area known at the time as the Connecticut Western Reserve. Here, the family settled on 160 wooded acres and established a small farm. Five more children were born there: Anna (1804), Catherine (1807), Elizabeth (1809), Asenath (1811), and Alexander Hamilton (1816). William spent his youth on this fairly isolated farmstead on the Ohio frontier.
At the time, the Ohio frontier was considered the edge of settlement—for white settlers, anyway. Although travelers and white settlers at the time described this area as a “howling wilderness” or the “solitary wilds,” in fact Native Americans had inhabited the region for thousands of years. By the time Europeans (primarily French and British fur traders) arrived in the 1700s, several Native American tribes had recently moved into the area. These included the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Seneca-Cayuga—who had all migrated or been forced to settle there during that time from other places in the north, east, south, and west.
A hand-cut silhouette of George Washington, created around the time of his presidency. / THF142004
The influx of American settlers into Ohio with the passage of the Land Ordinance Act (1785) and the Northwest Ordinance (1787) spurred the American government—which had never truly recognized Native rights of land ownership—to evict the Native Americans from these lands. In the 1780s, a series of treaties was attempted. When these proved essentially unsuccessful, a frustrated President Washington decided to use brute force instead. He commanded a successive series of military generals to drive the Native tribes out of Ohio. Eventually, General Anthony Wayne declared victory in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. (William’s father, Alexander, had been involved in this and previous battles in what became known as the Ohio Indian Wars of the 1790s.) The resulting Treaty of Greenville in 1795 pushed Ohio’s Native tribes into a demarcated section of northwest Ohio, until they were forced out of Ohio completely in the early 1800s.
In 1795 (the same year as the Treaty of Greenville), Connecticut, which had been deeded the strip of land in northeast Ohio Territory known as the Western Reserve back in 1662, sold this land to a group of speculators. They surveyed the land, neatly dividing it into townships and then assigning land agents who sold individually marked lots to incoming white settlers. Within about ten years, Ohio essentially shifted from “Indian Country” to a territory rapidly filling up with white settlers. In 1803, Ohio became the 17th state admitted to the United States, though the Western Reserve area in northeastern Ohio remained fairly sparsely settled until after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Though only some of William Holmes McGuffey’s neighbors were—like him—Scots-Irish Presbyterians from western Pennsylvania, many shared the similar experience of adapting to the Ohio frontier from more settled communities farther east.
McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic First Reader, 1848. / THF289925
As part of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, schooling and education had been encouraged, but the ordinance charter did not create a system for establishing or funding schools. The children of more well-to-do families paid tuition to attend private schools, called academies, where both boys and girls received rudimentary training in classics, reading, writing, and arithmetic.
While education was considered a high priority by New Englanders and Scots-Irish Presbyterians settling in Ohio, many farm families—especially those migrating to the area from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky—often lacked the money and inclination to ensure that their children received a formal education. In 1818, a traveler remarked that the schools in Ohio were very few in number and “wretched” in conditions.
William Holmes McGuffey received a better education than most children raised on the Ohio frontier. In his early years, his mother taught him basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, but she was always attempting to find ways for William to receive more education. She eventually succeeded in finding a school for him to attend in Youngstown, six miles away, run by Presbyterian minister Rev. William Wick, and William quickly developed a passion for learning. At the completion of his studies, Rev. Wick informed William that he had now received enough education to teach others and encouraged him to open a school. As a result, in September 1814, 14-year-old William McGuffey held his first “subscription school” at Calcutta, Ohio, for 48 students. His students, whose parents paid a fee for their instruction, brought their own books, with the Bible being the most common.
Two years later, and for the next four years, McGuffey attended the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, in western Pennsylvania. He then enrolled in Washington College, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian school located in Washington, Pennsylvania—ironically only a few miles from where he had been born. For the next six years, William alternated between working on his family’s farm in Ohio, teaching school, and attending classes at Washington. As he tried to educate others in the scattered and isolated settlements of the western frontier, he got a true sense of how desperately children needed an easy, standardized way of learning to read and write.
McGuffey’s Eclectic Second Reader, 1836. / THF289931
William completed his formal schooling at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a Presbyterian school, then taught there for the next 10 years (1826–36). By the 1830s, Ohio’s population had grown tremendously, and many public schools were opening. McGuffey saw a great need for a system of standardized education, especially for children of immigrants and those living in the scattered settlements of the West (now the Midwest) and South. In the mid-1830s, Truman & Smith, a Cincinnati publishing company, invited him to prepare a new series of textbooks to be marketed in the Midwest.
McGuffey worked to make his Eclectic Readers interesting and accessible to children, based on his observations while he was a teacher. An important difference from the few earlier textbooks that existed in America was that these were purposefully developed as a series, with each reader intended to be progressively more difficult and challenging than the one preceding it. He completed his first and second readers in 1836 and the primer, third, and fourth readers in 1837. William’s younger brother, Alexander, compiled the fifth reader in 1844 and the sixth in 1857.
Cover page of McGuffey’s Newly Revised Rhetorical Guide; or Fifth Reader, 1853, owned by Bishop Milton Wright, father of Orville and Wilbur Wright. / THF250428
McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were called “eclectic” because they included stories, poems, essays, and speeches drawn from a variety of sources. The primer and the first two readers consisted mainly of brief, simple tales and lessons. The more advanced readers included excerpts from orations, scripture, and English literature.
When students completed a reader, they moved on to the next level. With time off for harvest and farm chores, rural pupils might get no further than the second reader before completing their education in their mid-teens, which would provide reading skills equal to about a third- or fourth-grade level today.
Inside pages and outside cover of McGuffey’s New Second Eclectic Reader, 1865. / THF59806
The McGuffey Readers had a huge impact on American society, especially in the Midwest and South. The books not only taught youngsters to read; they were also often their primary source of information about history, philosophy, and science. For many schoolchildren, the excerpts in the readers from the works of authors like Shakespeare and Wordsworth were the closest they would get in their lifetimes to the Western world’s great literature. The stories in the readers also helped establish common understandings, heroes, values, and even expressions among a wide group of Americans. For example, when President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that he did not wish to be a “Meddlesome Matty,” everyone knew what he meant. He was referring to a character in McGuffey’s fourth reader who snooped and meddled in other people’s affairs.
The kind of practical morality that McGuffey advocated in these books was based on his own upbringing and Scots-Irish Presbyterian background. The ideal character traits that were emphasized in the readers—industry, thrift, temperance, kindness, virtue—all reflected Presbyterian values. As the series was updated in 1841, 1844, 1857, 1866, and 1879, the publishers gradually muted its overt religious messages. But they never lost McGuffey’s original emphasis on moral instruction.
Over time, critics have attacked McGuffey’s readers for such flaws as not addressing the injustices of slavery, referring to Native Americans as “savages,” having anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones, and reinforcing the traditional role of women as homemakers. McGuffey himself revised some of his text over successive editions. Still, the readers are of their place, their time, and the background and life experiences of their author.
Henry Ford and McGuffey’s Readers
Henry Ford perusing a McGuffey reader inside the McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village, 1940. / THF126110
Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by the McGuffey Readers. Ford considered McGuffey one of his great heroes because of his ability to spark young imaginations. He believed that the books were successful because they used a narrative approach that spoke to the time and place of readers like himself.
Henry Ford had this reader, originally published in 1885, reprinted in 1930 for use in his Edison Institute Schools. / THF288332
McGuffey Readers had a deep and lasting influence on Henry Ford. They were among the earliest objects reflecting the American experience that Henry Ford collected, beginning in the 1910s. Ford bought every copy that he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. A strong believer in McGuffey’s educational principles, Ford perpetuated these beliefs by founding the Edison Institute Schools. He even had the readers reprinted so that the children in the schools could use them.
Edison Institute schoolchildren exiting McGuffey School, 1937–40. / THF286354
Ford commemorated McGuffey’s role in educational reform by rebuilding his birthplace in Greenfield Village and constructing a school out of barn logs from the original farmstead where McGuffey was born. William Holmes McGuffey School served as the second-grade classroom for the students attending Edison Institute Schools from 1934 until the school system was closed in 1969.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Henry Ford, childhood, school, education, books, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden