American educator William Holmes McGuffey, famous for creating his McGuffey Readers, an influential series of school texts in 19th century America, was born on September 23, 1800 in western Pennsylvania. He received a sparse education in his childhood and youth, but learned enough to eventually teach in the one-room country schools of rural Ohio after his family moved to the buckeye state. McGuffey eventually earned an A.B. from Washington College in Pennsylvania and took an appointment as professor of ancient languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he served for ten years.
It was at Miami that he began collecting and organizing the material that became the first of the McGuffey Readers with the assistance of his brother Alexander, a teacher and a lawyer. Visitors can tour the McGuffey House near the Miami campus and see the room and desk where McGuffey worked on the Readers. In the coming months I will write a post about this site as part of a road trip segment.
McGuffey left Miami to become president of Cincinnati College (a forerunner of the University of Cincinnati) in 1836, and later took on the presidency of Ohio University in 1839. He returned to Cincinnati and taught at Woodward College (later Woodward High School) before becoming professor of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Virginia. He held this position until his death in 1873. In addition to his teaching and editorial work, McGuffey was also a Presbyterian minister and one of the founders of the public school system in Ohio.
McGuffey was the driving force behind the first four readers, which were published by Truman and Smith, a Cincinnati company, in 1836 and 1837. Later readers were compiled by others. There were a total of eleven McGuffey school texts. Scholars estimate that 122 million of the McGuffey books appeared between 1836 and 1920, becoming a part of the school experience for millions of American children.
The historian Henry Steele Commager gives a good summary of McGuffey and the importance of the Readers in the life of the nation. Here is Commager:
“Justice Holmes said of John Marshall that part of his greatness was in being there; so, too, we can say that part of the greatness of the McGuffey Readers was that they were there at the right time—they were there to be read by millions of children from all parts of the country, from all classes, of all faiths. They gave to the American child of the nineteenth century what he so conspicuously lacks today—a common body of allusions, a sense of common experience, and of common possession…The McGuffey Readers, then, are far more than a historical curiosity. They played an important role in American education and in American culture, and helped shape that elusive thing we call the American character.”
McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader, 1879 Edition. With a Foreword by Henry Steele Commager. Signet Classic—The New American Library of World Literature, Inc. New York, 1963.
Ohio Authors and their Books 1796-1950. Edited by William Coyle. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.