In publishing, timing is everything. Take, for instance, the case of William Holmes McGuffey. In the early 1830s, a Cincinnati-based publishing firm asked the famed educator Catherine Beecher—who had moved to Ohio to advocate for frontier schoolteachers—to write a set of schoolbooks. She declined but recommended McGuffey, a Presbyterian minister and philosophy professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The resulting textbooks, commonly referred to as McGuffey Readers, were wildly popular, collectively selling more copies than any book other than the Bible over the course of the nineteenth century. In the process, they reshaped school methods and informed students’ understanding of the world.1
Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely one of the millions of nineteenth-century Americans that picked up a McGuffey Reader. In the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl, Wilder described being “horrified” after reading a story in an unnamed schoolbook that began with the line, “Laura was a glutton.” “I could hardly be comforted,” she wrote, “even when [her mother] said the story did not mean me, and that I need not be a glutton even though my name was Laura.”2 The story Wilder referenced first appeared in an 1828 issue of Lydia Maria Child’s educational journal The Juvenile Miscellany. Child, who became a well-known abolitionist and advocate for American Indian rights, wrote many of the journal’s stories, including “Little Laura,” which began reaching a wider audience in 1836, when McGuffey reprinted it in his Second Eclectic Reader.3 In that volume, the tale begins: “Laura is a greedy girl. Indeed she is quite a glutton.” The author then contrasts Laura’s intemperate eating habits with those of several animals, each of which practice restraint and balance their meals with copious physical activity. The narrative ends: “I do not love little girls that eat too much. I do not think they will have such rosy cheeks, or such bright eyes, or such sweet lips, or such happy tempers, as those who eat less. Do you, my little readers?”4 Leading questions of this sort peppered the McGuffey Readers, which aimed to mold students’ characters while enhancing their reading and writing skills.
While turn-of-the-century progressive educators would deride McGuffey’s pedagogical and moral style as old-fashioned, many at the time considered the readers’ deliberate approach to teaching literacy innovative. McGuffey compiled four volumes—his brother later produced two more—calibrated to children at different stages of their education, furthering the then-novel notion that students should be separated into different grades. The books, which often doubled as history texts, brimmed with patriotic tales and brief sketches of national figures.5 The first two readers went to press in the early years of the common school movement. The Yankee reformers who spearheaded this crusade aimed to make a basic education free to all students. They also worked to create statewide departments of education that would unify standards for curriculum and teacher training. As the reformers’ vision spread, so too did the readers. Revised versions appeared regularly, helping the books stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market. For the bulk of the nineteenth century, the readers were a fixture in schools and homes across the nation.6
Faithful adherents continued to buy the readers well into the twentieth century. A school board in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, even voted to readopt the texts in 1961, a decision that sparked considerable controversy. Around the same time, a “back-to-basics” educational movement began touting the readers as superior to modern textbooks, which largely eschewed the rote instruction and heavy-handed moralizing that characterized McGuffey’s tomes.7 Regardless of whether or not the readers have stood the test of time either in terms of content or function, they hold a key place in the history of American education.
1. William J. Reese, America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 30–31; Johann N. Neem, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), pp. 39–40.
2. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 50. The influence of the readers can be glimpsed elsewhere in the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl. In several editions of the Second Reader, “The Greedy Girl” directly precedes a story titled “The Guide-Post,” which resembles Wilder’s account of Pa mistaking a burned stump for a bear while walking home in the night (PGAA, pp. 46–47). In “The Guide-Post,” however, a boy mistakes the titular sign for a ghost. In both cases, the lesson was to not let one’s imagination get the best of them, a standard McGuffey trope.
3. Julia Maria Child, “Little Laura,” Juvenile Miscellany, Nov. 1828, pp. 203–5.
4. William Holmes McGuffey, ed., The Eclectic Second Reader (Cincinnati: Truman & Smith, 1836), pp. 23–24.
5. Neem, Democracy’s Schools, pp. 41, 44–46, 49–50.
6. For the main achievements of the common school movement, see Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), pp. ix–x.
7. For more on this episode, see Campbell F. Scribner, The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), pp. 141, 145–53.