Sunday, April 21, 2019

Textbooks for a Growing Country: McGuffey's Eclectic Readers

When I began homeschooling my children many moons ago, I attended a conference where a man spoke about a traditional back-to-basics curriculum for children. His name was George Mott and he’d begun a company which published facsimile versions of the original McGuffey’s Readers series, like those straight from the teacher’s desk of a 19th-century American one-room schoolhouse. He also published Ray’s Arithmetic, Harvey’s Grammar, and Spencerian Penmanship. He wanted to help parents reclaim a higher rate of literacy for their children while teaching the “three Rs” from morally-based textbooks. Mott Media was less than an hour’s drive from my house and I gladly went there to shop for some of my books.

William Holmes McGuffey {PD}

I was charmed by McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, their phonetical method of teaching reading, the old-fashioned pictures, and moral tales. These books had their foundations when they were written by educator, William Holmes McGuffey, in 1835 who’d been ordained to be a Presbyterian minister, in 1829. He was born in 1800 in Pennsylvania. When he was just a tot, his family moved farther west to Ohio, which was considered frontier at the time. 

McGuffey’s family had strong religious convictions and valued education, Though he attended a public school, he received private tutoring in Latin from a local minister. 

By the time William was fourteen, he was a traveling teacher to frontier schools. After he graduated from Washington College in 1826 he took a position as a professor of languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was also known as a lecturer on Biblical and moral topics and values.

William McGuffey's home in Oxford, Ohio {PD}
(by Nysstand, 2010)
The United States was growing as the frontier moved west and needed standardized American textbooks. Publisher Winthrop S. Smith of Cincinnati sought out the talents of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was also a teacher. While she wasn’t interested in taking on the project, she recommended her friend, William McGuffey for the job as he already had an interest in accomplishing this.

Since the 18th century, textbooks were predominantly produced in New England. Their traditional textbooks reflected older words and writings, but with western expansion and immigration from foreign countries, there was a new need for textbooks that taught a newer standardized English along with American culture and values.

Cover of McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader, 1841 {PD}
McGuffey took on the project with Smith offering him a ten percent royalty from the profits, not to exceed $1000. (Methinks the author got the short end of the stick here.) The first two readers of the series were compiled within a year of his signing the contract. By 1837 the third and fourth readers in the series were also written. His brother, Alexander, wrote the fifth and sixth volumes. 

Schools mostly used the first and second readers. McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader introduced more difficult words and sentences than the less popular primer which was eventually pulled from publication. And as a child was presented with lessons from the second reader, the stories grew more complex.

Mott Media 1836 version, published in 1982
William McGuffey had developed the content of his readers with the help of local children, including his own, as his research subjects. The third and fourth readers included excerpts from Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, and Thomas Jefferson. 

What began as a rhetorical guide became the fifth and sixth readers, advanced material which included selections from the Bible, Charles Dickens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. These volumes also covered topics from a wide range of subjects as well as lessons in elocution. 

A story in McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader.
McGuffey’s Readers helped set the standard for the appropriate behavior for a successful and healthy society. The stories in the readers were intended to teach not just moral standards but the growth of character as well. While the New England Primer of the 18th-century used a “hellfire and brimstone” approach to teaching morality, McGuffey’s had a distinct Calvinistic flavor and taught children of the immediate consequences possible from wrong behavior. 

William H. McGuffey married and had five children. He loved to spend time with children and was said to have a good sense of humor. He went on to a successful academic career with several institutions. Through the Civil War and after he generously gave to the poor and to African-Americans. He died in 1873.

"Story About King Solomon" in McGuffey's Second Eclectic Reader.

In 1879, the legacy of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers was changed by the publisher due to the desire for unity in an increasingly pluralistic society. Gone was anything that smacked of Calvinistic beliefs and theology. 

Yet still today, homeschools and Christian schools across the United States still value the original versions carefully written by William H. McGuffey and his brother, Alexander. For them, including good morals, Biblical character, and a little piety go a long way in helping to complete their children's education.

Kathleen Rouser is the multi-published author of the 2017 Bookvana Award winner, Rumors and Promises, her first novel about the people of fictional Stone Creek, Michigan, and its sequel, Secrets and Wishes. She is a longtime member in good standing of American Christian Fiction Writers. Kathleen wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She longs to create characters who resonate with readers and realize the need for a transforming Savior in their everyday lives. She lives in Michigan with her hero and husband of thirty-some years, and the sassy tail-less cat who found a home in their empty nest. Connect with Kathleen on her website at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter @KathleenRouser.

The Last Memory in The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection
Lighthouses have long been the symbol of salvation, warning sailors
away from dangerous rocks and shallow waters.

Along the Great Lakes, America’s inland seas, lighthouses played a vital role in the growth of the nation. They shepherded settlers traveling by water to places that had no roads. These beacons of light required constant tending even in remote and often dangerous places. Brave men and women battled the elements and loneliness to keep the lights shining. Their sacrifice kept goods and immigrants moving. Seven romances set between 1883 and 1911 bring hope to these lonely keepers and love to weary hearts.

The Last Memory
by Kathleen Rouser
1899—Mackinac Point Lighthouse
Natalie Brooks loses her past to amnesia, and Cal Waterson, the lighthouse keeper who rescues her, didn’t bargain on risking his heart—when her past might change everything.


  1. I've heard about McGuffey Readers but never actually seen a copy. Maybe I should do that at some point. I love the concept of wholesome reading for children that teaches something valuable for life as well. Thanks!

  2. I'm glad you found this post helpful, Connie. McGuffey's Readers
    are just fun to look through even, just seeing the old-fashioned
    stories and illustrations. They are certainly a good alternative
    for some wholesome reading.

  3. Kathleen, thank you for sharing the history of McGuffey Readers. I've seen a couple of the books. The concept of good morals, Biblical characteristics would go a long way in our society today if public schools would get back to the basics like McGuffey Readers. I hear homeschool parents say they appreciate cirrculum and books with value instead of some of the far fetched books students are required to read at times. Blessings.