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American Primers and Readers

Featuring the Words and Collection of Richard L. Venezky

An online exhibition of the Cubberley Education Library, Stanford University

Textbook Business: McGuffey Readers

Overview of McGuffey Readers exhibit case
Detail of left side of exhibit case

"The McGuffey Readers, like all others, were commercial ventures and were targeted toward a specific audience. For example, the southern market was important territory for the McGuffey Readers and was undoubtedly the reason for an almost total exclusion of readings on the Civil War, save for a single impartial piece" (Venezky, 1992, p. 450).

"In the evolution of the American reading script, the McGuffey readers represent several major transitions, the most important of which was the use of a highly aggressive marketing strategy, backed by frequent revisions to appeal to changing tastes and to compete with new materials brought out by other publishers" (Venezky, 1990b, p. xix).

Detail of right side of exhibit case
Winthrop B. Smith

"But the true McGuffey reader story lies not in the dour, Calvinistic William Holmes McGuffey, but in the astute manager and marketer, Winthrop B. Smith, the originator of the idea for the McGuffey readers and their first publisher. This is also the story of the ascendancy of the large textbook publishing houses in the United States, the Goliaths of the trade, and the commercialization of elementary education" (Venezky, 1990a, p. 21).

When the Civil War embargo blocked sales to the South, W.B. Smith gave a duplicate set of plates to friends at the Methodist Book Concern of Nashville, Tennessee for publication in the Confederate South.

Detail of book page describing literary plagiarism charges against McGuffey

"Literary Plagiarisms." 1838. American Annals of Education (December): 563-4.

"In fact, McGuffey made his readers so much like his competitors' that he and his publisher were sued in 1838 for plagiarism by the publishers and author of the Worcester Readers.

"An article in the American Annals of Education is devastatingly clear on the overlap between McGuffey and Worcester. McGuffey and his publisher settled out of court for $2,000 and revised their readers immediately" (Venezky, 1987, p. 251).

Cover image of McGuffey's Alternate Fourth Reader

McGuffey, William Holmes [1887-1889?]. McGuffey's alternate fourth reader. Cincinnati: Van Antwerp, Bragg & Co.

A page of classified ads from one of McGuffey's Readers Cover image of McGuffey's Eclectic Fourth Reader

McGuffey, William Holmes. 1866. McGuffey's new fourth eclectic reader: instructive lessons for the young. Cincinnati: Sargent, Wilson, & Hinkle; Chicago : Cobb, Pritchard & Co. ; New York : Clark & Maynard.

Advertisement for McGuffey's Eclectic Reader series
Cover image of McGuffey's Eclectic Third Reader

McGuffey, William Holmes. 1840. The eclectic third reader: containing selections in prose and poetry from the best American and English writers: with plain rules for reading and directions for avoiding common errors. Cincinnati: Truman and Smith.

Title page from McGuffey's Eclectic Third Reader Detail of page 89 of McGuffey's Eclectic Third Reader
Cover image of McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader, 1879 Cover image of McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader, 1920 Cover image of McGuffey's Fourth Eclectic Reader, 1857
Cover image of McGuffey's Fourth Eclectic Reader, 1901

McGuffey, William Holmes. 1901. The new McGuffey fourth reader. American Book Co.

Cover image of McGuffey's Pictorial Eclectic Primer, 1867 Cover image of McGuffey's First Spanish-English Eclectic Reader

McGuffey, William Holmes. 1892. McGuffey's first Spanish-English eclectic reader. New York, Cincinnati [etc.] American Book Co.