- 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
My 1830 Lcxington, Louisville, and Cincinnati were centers of a new western book trade. Printers had brought movable presses over the mountains and down the river: publishers saw bright prospects in a bookless country. Soon Cincinnati took the lead, with a stream of almanacs, farm manuals, spelling books (including a new edition of Webster), school readers, testaments, and hymn books pouring from the presses. It was a new business: it existed not only because of the high cost of freighting books across the mountains but also because of the growing sectional conscious ness of the new country. “Western books for western people” was a persuasive slogan.
A second-floor room on lower Main Street in Cin cinnati housed the small firm of Truman and Smith, publishers of Ray’ Arithmetic and a few other elementary schoolbooks. Winthrop B. Smith had an idea for a series of Eclectic Readers and he looked for an educator to compile them. In 1833 lie proposed the scries to Catharine Heecher, daughter of the president of Lane Seminary and sister of the future author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin . Miss Heecher was preoccupied with higher education for women—she had opened in Cincinnati the Western Female Institute—and declined the task. Probably it was she who suggested a professor at Miami University; through the activities of a pioneer teachers’ association, the Western Teachers’ College Institute, McGuffey was acquainted with the Beechers. Smith soon made a contract with McGuffey for the publication of six books—a Primer, a Speller, and four Readers —for which the compiler would receive royalty payment of $1,000. No one could foresee that the series would make the fortune of Winthrop Smith and of a whole series of publishers who followed him.
Before the first meeting with Truman and Smith, McGuffey had filed in his octagonal desk a sheaf of pages beginning “A is for Ax.” Now he took the manuscript to one of his students, Welsh-born Benjamin Chidlaw, asking him to make a careful copy for publication. Chidlaw was living on 32 cents a week, cooking porridge and potatoes on his stove in the old North Hall.
The First and Second Readers were published in 1836; the Primer and the Third and Fourth Readers followed in 1837. To the selections were added questions, rules of pronunciation, and exercises in spelling—an apparatus in which Catharine Beecher collaborated. By 1843 the series was selling half a million copies a year.
In 1844 appeared McGuffey’s Rhetorical Guide, an anthology of English and American literature, compiled for a fee of $500 by his brother Alexander. The former tree-climber was then a leading Cincinnati lawyer, the son-in-law of Dr. Daniel Drake, and a warm friend of the Beecher Family. The Rhetorical Guide bore the name “A. H McGuffey,” Which was close enough, especially in English script, to “W. H. McGuffey” to be accepted as coming from the same hand. A revision of the series in 1853 added the Rhetorical Guide to the set as the Fifth Reader . With selections from the great historians, orators, novelists, essayists, and poets, it became the most famous Reader of all. More than a schoolbook, it was a literary storehouse for family reading and a portable library for ambitious youths in a nearly bookless country.
The enlarged series swept southward and westward into thousands of new school districts as settlements spread. By 1860 sales of the Readers passed two million copies a year. When Cincinnati could not fill the orders, other publishers were licensed to produce the McGuffey series: Clark, Austin, Maynard and Company in New York; Lippincott Company in Philadelphia; Cobb, Pritchard and Company in Chicago. After the Civil War the Methodist Book Concern in Nashville Published huge editions for distribution in the South. In the second half of the Nineteenth Century the proprietors became successively W.B. Smith and Company; Sargent, Wilson & Hinkle; Wilson, Hinkle; & Company; Van Antwerp, Bragg & Company; and finally the Ameriacn Book Company.
The Gilded Age was a golden age for the McGuffey publishers, who rode the wave of American expansion The Readers went west in freight wagons and with emigrant caravans; traders packed them into Indian reservations; they turned up in sod schoolhouses on the prairie, in cow towns on the plains, and mining camps in the Rockies and the Sierras. Between 1870 and 1890 the series sold sixty million copies. They were the basic schoolbooks in 37 states. Except for New England, where they never got started, the McGuffey Readers blanketed the nation.
In the 1890’s the texts were translated into Spanish, and American imperialism carried them into the thatch-roof schools of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. A Tokyo edition, with alternate pages in English and Japanese, was used in schoolrooms under the shadow of Fujiyama.