Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Check out my McGuffeys!

I love my old books. I have some pretty cool ones, including a first edition two-set Sexus by Henry Miller, a Christmas edition of Self-Reliance, an early edition of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, and a seriously old complete works of Shakespeare. And then there are my McGuffeys.
McGuffey readers were the universal elementary school textbooks from 1836 until the mid-1900s. The set I have was published in 1879. When I got them out today, it kind of hit me that these books I was holding were one hundred years old.

A lot of early schoolbooks didn't survive, or are in really bad shape now. If you think about it, these books were used daily by young children, carried, read, worked out of, and often passed down to the next youngest and the next youngest, clear through a family of twelve or so kids. Most books published today will be dust in fifty years, much less one hundred, due to the poor grade of paper used in modern publishing. Paperbacks will be lucky to last thirty years.

The artwork in the McGuffeys is so amazing and engaging. And, if you think people were less educated then, you are seriously wrong. They learned differently, but they certainly read at a much more advanced level much earlier. This is basically a second or third grade text book. McGuffey introduced the idea of learning phonetically, sounding out words, and using vocabulary in sentences for context. Before that, kids just memorized vocabulary lists by rote. . . No little stories. No pictures.
The faces on the mice in this illustration kill me, sweet little ratty faces.

William McGuffey taught at Miami University of Ohio, which is where he developed these readers. Over 120 million copies of his readers have been sold since their first publication in 1836. Wow. He basically changed the way our country learned to read, and how amazing is that?
Of all of my vintage stuff, these books seem to hold the most inspiration and history. How many kids learned to read using these very books that I have in my living room? Now that is a magical thought.


  1. These are brilliant - you must feel lucky to hold such an important and illustrative piece of history in your hands.

  2. Very very intersting. :) Some weeks ago they were throwing away "old" (better said ANCIENT) books at university. I picked some up and were shaking my head because I cant believe people dont know how to esimate the historic value of those books. One had even a WOODEN cover!!! :D