Historical Markers
William Holmes McGuffey Historical Marker
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William Holmes McGuffey

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
U.S. 40 at McGuffey High School/Middle School, just W. of Pa 231, Claysville

Dedication Date:
April 23, 1998

Behind the Marker

Cover of First Eclectic Reader, 1836
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Cover of William Holmes McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader , 1836.
Hardly a child educated in mid-nineteenth century America failed to make the acquaintance of the series McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, the multi-volume grade school primer that taught intellectual development and moral improvement. McGuffey's Reader, as the books were known popularly, resonated with a national audience thirsty for the author's combination of pragmatic instruction and Christian devotion. Over nearly 100 years the reader sold an astonishing 120 million copies, surpassing in sales virtually every other printed volume except the Bible. A version of the series remains in print today.

Oil on canvas
William Holmes McGuffey, circa 1836.
Born near Claysville, Pennsylvania, in 1800, William Holmes McGuffey became one of the most influential educator/authors of the nineteenth century. McGuffey came of age with the new nation, when the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening was reaching its height. He lived to see the dawn of the modern, industrial age in the post-Civil War years.

As a child he moved with his family to the region of the Western Reserve near Youngstown, Ohio, where he attended public school and received tutoring in the classical languages. Piety and intellectual curiosity were encouraged at home as sure foundations for a responsible life.

McGuffey graduated from markerWashington College in 1826 and commenced a long career as a college professor and popular author. In 1836, he resigned a position at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio for the presidency of Cincinnati College. That same year he published the first edition of his McGuffey's Eclectic Readers.

Although McGuffey had a distinguished academic career, including the presidency of Ohio University and appointments at Woodward College and the University of Virginia, nothing else he accomplished matched the singular influence of his multi-volume reader. What made the McGuffey's Reader so popular was its inventive mix of basic instructional material with uplifting moral anecdotes and sayings meant to expand character and complete the student's personal development.

Cover Page
Frontpage of Martin G. Brumbaugh's The Standard First Reader, Christopher Sower...
Drawing upon the latest educational theory from Europe, McGuffey created an "Eclectic" reader to be used by the teachers of America's marker new common schools. The reader taught skills and values through poems, Scripture verse, and didactic stories meant to impart personal examples of the virtuous life.

McGuffey adopted a practical, almost rote approach to traditional subject matter such as spelling, grammar, and what are now called language arts, placed within the context of a decidedly Christian worldview. The author believed in the power of the heroic and he virtuous to teach what was then called the principles of "right living."

By modern standards the reader might appear an anachronism, but in its time–the nineteenth century–McGuffey's philosophy of practical and pietistic learning resonated with his countrymen as they and their nation came of age. Long after the author's death, his great creation continued to be required reading in schools across America.

McGuffey was lionized by the auto magnate and antique collector Henry Ford, who moved McGuffey's boyhood home to Ford's historical village in Dearborn, Michigan. In recent years, the Eclectic Readers have enjoyed a small revival within the Christian private-school and home school communities.

Between 1845 and his death on May 4, 1873, William H. McGuffey held the position of chair in the Department of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Few would argue with the appropriateness of the assignment, or with McGuffey's singular influence on the education of American children.
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