The Scotch-Irish author of America’s best-selling reading primer

William Holmes McGuffey's books sold more than 120 million copies

Illustration from McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader (1920 edition). Public domain, New York Public Library.

Illustration from McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader (1920 edition). Public domain, New York Public Library.

The second-biggest selling book in 19th-century America – after the Bible – was a series of primers authored by Scotch-Irishman William Holmes McGuffey. Selling more than 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960, McGuffey’s readers were to be found in most American public school classrooms, and generations of schoolchildren were shaped by the lessons found in their pages.

Background

The son of pioneer farmers, McGuffey rose from the most humble of backgrounds to prominence in academia and children’s publishing. He began his career in education aged 15, as a travelling teacher, attending the Presbyterian Old Stone Academy in Pennsylvania between jobs. He graduated from Washington College in 1826 and three years later was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He became an instructor in ancient languages at Miami University, Ohio before being appointed Chair of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia in 1845, a position “Old Guff” held until his death in 1873.

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