William Holmes McGuffey, author and compiler of the McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers series, was born on September 23, 1800. He wrote his first readers in 1836. By the time he died in 1873 his books were being used all over the United States.
In addition to reading the McGuffey Readers taught the moral and intellectual virtues of integrity, honesty, kindness, temperance, true patriotism, courage, and politeness. Forgive me but I think we could use a lot more of all of these.
In accordance with his contract, Mr. McGuffey received only $1,000 for his work. If he had received one penny for each book sold, he would have received $1,220,000. He wasn’t interested in money. He wanted to educate kids. And that’s what he did.
At the end of first grade I had not learned to read. That summer I took my father’s old fourth grade reader (it wasn’t a McGuffey Reader but it was similar) and, according to my mother, sat in back of the couch and taught myself to read. I have quite a bit of fondness for these old readers.
When I was researching this article I was astounded to learn that the McGuffey Readers were experiencing something of a comeback. Apparently, they’re being used pretty extensively by home-schoolers. Here’s what the originals looked like. And here’s the online text of the fourth reader. Here’s a sample section:
“Please, mother, do sit down and let me try my hand,” said Fred Liscom, a bright active boy, twelve years old. Mrs. Liscom, looking pale and worn, was moving languidly about, trying to clear away the breakfast she had scarcely tasted.
She smiled, and said, “You, Fred, you wash dishes?” “Yes, indeed, mother,” answered Fred; “I should be a poor scholar if I couldn’t, when I’ve seen you do it so many times. Just try me.”
A look of relief came over his mother’s face as she seated herself in her low rocking-chair. Fred washed the dishes and put them in the closet. He swept the kitchen, brought up the potatoes from the cellar for the dinner and washed them, and then set out for school.
Fred’s father was away from home, and as there was some cold meat in the pantry, Mrs. Liscom found it an easy task to prepare dinner. Fred hurried home from school, set the table, and again washed the dishes.
He kept on in this way for two or three days, till his mother was able to resume her usual work, and he felt amply rewarded when the doctor, who happened in one day, said, “Well, madam, it’s my opinion that you would have been very sick if you had not kept quiet.”
The doctor did not know how the “quiet” had been secured, nor how the boy’s heart bounded at his words. Fred had given up a great deal of what boys hold dear, for the purpose of helping his mother, coasting and skating being just at this time in perfection.
Besides this, his temper and his patience had been severely. tried. He had been in the habit of going early to school, and staying to play after it was dismissed.
The boys missed him, and their curiosity was excited when he would give no other reason for not coming to school earlier, or staying after school, than that he was “wanted at home.”
“I’ll tell you,” said Tom Barton, “I’ll find him out, boys–see if I don’t!”
So, one morning on his way to school, he called for Fred. As he went around to the side door he walked lightly. and somewhat nearer the kitchen window than was absolutely needful. Looking in, he saw Fred standing at the table with a dishcloth in his hand.
Of course he reported this at school, and various were the greetings poor Fred received at recess. “Well, you’re a brave one to stay at home washing dishes!” “Girl boy!” “Pretty Bessie!” “Lost your apron, haven’t you, Polly!”
Fred was not wanting either in spirit or in courage, and he was strongly tempted to resent these insults, and to fight some of his tormentors. But his consciousness of right and his love for his mother helped him.
While he was struggling for self mastery, his teacher appeared at the door of the schoolhouse. Fred caught his eye, and it seemed to look, if it did not say, “Don’t give up! Be really brave!” He knew the teacher had heard the insulting taunts of his thoughtless schoolmates.
The boys received notice during the day that Fred must not be taunted or teased in any manner. They knew that the teacher meant what he said; and so the brave little boy had no further trouble.
“Fire! fire! ” The cry crept out on the still night air, and the fire bells began to mug. Fred was wakened by the alarm and the red light streaming into his room. He dressed himself very quickly, and then tapped at the door of his mother’s bedroom.
“It is Mr. Barton’s house, mother. Do let me go,” he said in eager, excited tones. Mrs. Liscom thought a moment. He was young, but she could trust him, and she knew how much his heart was in the request.
“Yes, you may go,” she answered; “but be careful, my boy. If you can help, do so; but do nothing rashly.” Fred promised to follow her advice, and hurried to the fire.
Mr. and Mrs. Barton were not at home. The house had been left in charge of the servants. The fire spread with fearful speed, for there was a high wind, and it was found impossible to save the house. The servants ran about screaming and lamenting, but doing nothing to any purpose.
Fred found Tom outside, in safety. “Where is Katy?” he asked. Tom, trembling with terror, seemed to have had no thought but of his own escape. He said, “Katy is in the house!” “In what room?” asked Fred. “In that one,” answered Tom, pointing to a window in the upper story.
It was no time for words, but for instant, vigorous action. The staircase was already on fire; there was but one way to reach Katy, and that full of danger. The second floor might fall at any moment, and Fred knew it. But he trusted in an arm stronger than his own, and silently sought help and guidance.
A ladder was quickly brought, and placed against the house. Fred mounted it, followed by the hired man, dashed in the sash of the window, and pushed his way into the room where the poor child lay nearly suffocated with smoke.
He roused her with some difficulty, carried her to the window, and placed her upon the sill. She was instantly grasped by strong arms, and carried down the ladder, Fred following as fast as possible. They had scarcely reached the ground before a crash of falling timbers told them that they had barely escaped with their lives.
Tom Barton never forgot the lesson of that night; and he came to believe, and to act upon the belief, in after years, that true manliness is in harmony with gentleness, kindness, and self-denial.
DEFINITIONS:–Languidly, feebly. Amply, fully. Opinion, judgment, belief. Absolutely, wholly, entirely. Resent, to consider as an injury. Consciousness, inward feeling, knowledge of what passes in one’s own mind.