A History of Education: The American Educational System, Common School Period (McGuffey Readers)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 30th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

In 1833, a small, Cincinnati, Ohio, publishing company called Truman and Smith became interested in the idea of publishing school texts. They began to scout for a prominent educator to create a series of readers and stumbled upon Rev. William Holmes McGuffey. A Professor of Languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a noted lecturer on religion and morality, McGuffey was introduced to the firm by his friend Harriet Beecher Stowe.

McGuffey had already planned a series of readers (now known as the McGuffey Readers) and published the first four through Truman and Smith within two years. The first contained 55 lessons and introduced children to McGuffey’s criteria for an ethical code. The child modeled in the book is prompt, good, kind, honest, and truthful.

The second reader appeared simultaneously and contained 85 lessons, 16 pictures and 166 pages. It outlined reading, spelling, history, biology, astronomy, zoology, and botany. It included table manners, proper behavior toward family, and attitudes toward God, teachers, and the poor. It also stressed the duties of youth. Millions of pioneer men and women used this second reader to learn how to read and write English.

The third reader, composed of 57 lessons, took a more formal tone. It contained rules for oral reading and was illustrated by only three pictures. It was designed for a more mature mind, what we today would call a middle schooler.

The fourth reader presented an introduction to good literature, using British poetry and the Bible among its selections. It also discussed Napoleon Bonaparte, Puritan fathers, women, God, education, religion, and philosophy. It was leveled for students in the highest grades, comparable to American high schools.

The fifth reader offered elocutionary exercises to increase articulation, inflection, pitch, accent, rate, emphasis, and gesture, using selections from a variety of poets and prose writers.

The sixth and final reader came out in 1885, with 186 selections representing 111 great authors and 17 sections from the Bible. The themes included several forms of composition, description, narration, argumentation, and exposition.

All the readers took a moralistic tone, presenting the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant as the model American. Yet all six were considered remarkably literary and, in their own way, exerted a greater influence upon literary tastes in the US more than any other book, except for the Bible. Some people have estimated that the books sold at least 120 million copies between 1836-1960, and another 1.3 million since then. They’re still used in some instances, mostly in conservative, Protestant private schools and with those who are homeschooled.[2]


Next week: Catholic vs. Protestant Education


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.



[1] Payne, Shannon. (June 15, 2004). “McGuffey Readers.” The History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/mcguffey.html.

[2] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 84-85.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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