- Historic Sites
Primer From A Green World
From his native background, William McGuffey drew texts to educate young Americans
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
Late in the year 1825 two riders jogged into Oxford, Ohio, from the Cincinnati road and pulled up at the old college building. Down from the saddles slipped a man and a boy, William Holmes McGuffey and his nine-year-old brother Alexander H. The unknown new professor carried a bag of books and a roll of clothing to a room on the second floor of the old wing. He was 25 years old, about to be graduated in absentia from Washington College in Pennsylvania, and ready to begin his career. Forty years later his name would be as familiar as the alphabet.
Six months before, President Hishop of Miami University, on a speaking tour in the valley, had heard of a zealous young teacher in a country school outside of Paris, Kentucky. The school, it was said, was in a smokehouse, but the .scholars came early and stayed late. Bishop was interested in such a teacher. He found a serious young man with a high broad forehead, a big homely nose, and deeply lighted eyes. He was teaching reading, writing, and figuring, but on his plank desk were texts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Bishop offered him the chair of ancient languages at Miami University at a salary of $600.
One of eleven children of a Scotch-Irish farmer who had settled in New Connecticut (northeastern Ohio) and chopped out his own road to the village of Youngstown, McGuffey had struggled for an education. It was hit or miss, at home or brief periods in rural schools, until his formal education began when he was eighteen. lUit by that time his hungry mind had stored away whole chapters, verbatim, from the Hible. He got to college at twenty and between terms he taught school in the frontier settlements. Now with news of appointment to a college faculty he rode home. A few weeks later, with his young brother beside him, he clattered off for Oxford, 300 miles across the state of Ohio. Miami had a grammar school where Aleck could prepare for the course in college.
At Miami brother Alexander, promptly named “Red,” became a great tree-climber and broad-jumper in the college yard and a notorious swimmer, splasher, and ducker in the deep hole in Four Mile Creek; a few years later he was a leading declaimer and debater in the literary halls. Meanwhile Professor McGulfey was married to the niece of an Oxford merchant and ordained into the Presbyterian ministry. He preached on Sundays, alternating between the college chapel and rural congregations within horseback range of Oxford. In 1833 he moved his wife and two small daughters into their new brick house across from the south gate of the campus.
Every morning Professor McGuffey walked the path where the library now stands to the old college and climbed to his classroom in the southwest corner on the second floor. There was a determined elegance in his garb: a silk stovepipe hat and a suit of glossy black bombaxine, a shiny celluloid collar and a black bow tie. Longnecked, intent, and humorless, with a leathery skin and a farm boy’s big hands, he did not look easy in that dress. But he was at home in the classroom. His mind was clear, orderly, exact; his language ready and precise. He treated abstract and complex ideas in concrete and simple terms. One of his literary masters was the succinct Alexander Pope.
McGuffey was zealous, ambitious, and resourceful. Before breakfast he met students in his study for practice in elocution and forensics. Between classes he gathered neighborhood children to test the appeal of simple poems and stories. In his study stood a revolving eight-sided desk, made by himself in his own woodshed, with eight pie-shaped drawers—just right for filing word lists, spelling rules, reading exercises and selections. The young professor was compiling a series of schoolbooks.
From his terms of teaching McGuffey knew the somber lessons which introduced children to the wonder of the printed page. The famed New England Primer (five million copies printed since 1690) began with the bedrock of Calviiiistic theology—“In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all.” McGuffey was sufficiently old school in the pulpit, but like the children in his schoolrooms he had grown up in a new green world—a world of creeks and woods and meadows, of dogs and horses, sheep and cattle, orchards, pastures and farmyards. Already he had published a ‘Treatise on Methods of Reading.” As he walked the campus path he pondered the teaching of children in the new West.
In the strenuous Revolutionary period the leading American textbook was Webster’s Elementary Speller . It contained a lengthy moral catechism, a series of moral fables, a collection of readings in prose and verse, and word lists ranging from “bag” to “equiponderant.” Thousands of these “Dlue-Rack Spellers” came over the mountains, packed with the pots, pans, and pails in the movers’ wagons. The one notable Schoolbook between the New England Primer and McGuffey’s Readers, it was also the family anthology and encyclopedia.