1800s readers' staying power


McGuffey's primers among all-time top sellers

June 06, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THERE'S NOT a lot of intricate plotting in "McGuffey's Eclectic Primer." Girls and boys are good or bad, depending on their desire to go to school and church, and to be kind to small animals.

Ned, a bad boy, throws a stone at a quail and is tardy at school. Kate, a good baby in Lesson XXXIX, is still good as a young girl in Lesson L. Who should be Queen of the May? "It should be the best girl, and that is Kate."

The only hint of birds and bees is a strange conversation between Mary and a bee in Lesson XLIV. " `Buzz! buzz! buzz!' but Mary could not tell its wants."

And yet the McGuffey's readers, taken as a group, are the oldest and best-selling reading textbooks in history.

I hauled out my lone McGuffey's the other day to try to get a handle on the attraction. Reading through this beginning reader reminded me again how schoolbooks reflect their times. And how little education changes with the times.

My volume, one of my favorites in a small collection of old readers, was published in 1881 as a prequel to the wildly popular McGuffey's series dating to the 1830s.

What staying power! McGuffey's readers were best-sellers for nine decades until their popularity began to fade in the 1920s. By then they had sold more than 120 million copies. And they're still going strong, especially in home and Christian schools. Last week, Amazon.com listed the eclectic primer I own -- copyrighted numerous times by several publishers over 118 years -- as No. 144,104 in sales.

Not bad for a collection of syrupy, preachy stories salvaged by marvelous illustrations.

The 52 lessons generally follow the calendar, one for each week. Five or six new words are introduced at the beginning of each lesson with pronunciation guides, and most lessons are accompanied by an illustration and a related exercise in cursive.

In McGuffey's world, children and nature are in perfect harmony. There are few adults and many animals. Most lessons are mini-secular sermons. Kindness to animals is a recurring theme: "Tom will not rob a bird's nest," says the text in Lesson XX. "He is too kind to do so." Ned's attempt to kill the quail is a failure. "A good child would not try to kill a bird."

The Golden Rule and bravery are other themes. Brave boys do not cry when they fall on the ice. Even Kate as a baby is "good" because she doesn't cry. "But she will cry if she is hurt, or if she is not well."

After Kate's crowning as Queen of the May in Lesson L, here comes God in the penultimate Lesson LI: "Do you see that tall tree? Long ago it sprang up from a small nut. Do you know who made it do so? It was God, my child. God made the world and all things in it."

It's this injection of religion that disqualifies McGuffey's for public school use in the 20th century. But with the exception of the First Amendment-disqualifying God in LI and "the Lord" in the last lesson, McGuffey's could be transferred lock, stock, cat and rat to any 1999 primary school in the land.

More than a century after its first publication, the primer starts with phonics -- the short "a" as in "cat" and "rat" -- as do most 1999 phonics-based programs.

(Some things do change with the times. McGuffey's introduces a "nag" in Lesson IX, a word we seldom use now. And the "cars" in XXIX ["No horse can go as fast as the cars."] aren't automobiles; they're railroad cars.)

William Holmes McGuffey, a prominent 19th-century educator who became president of Ohio University, died a few years before publication of the "revised" primer I own. With the exceptions noted above, almost all religious references were removed from the "pure" McGuffey's readers of the 1830s. Those were filled with Scripture excerpts, references to the sovereignty of God and salvation -- "soaked in the Christian spirit," according to a home school reviewer. These McGuffey's, often with accompanying study guides, can be found in many home and Christian schools today.

But even in 1881, McGuffey's publishers knew how to make a sale. The primer is short, only 64 pages, so as to be "cheap and attractive," according to a preface. It's adaptable to any reading series, not solely to McGuffey's, and to any method of reading instruction -- "the Phonic Method, the Word Method, the Alphabet Method."

McGuffey's editors and publisher knew, nearly 14 decades ago, that there were Reading Wars out there, and they took pains to cater to all sides, eclectically.

That hasn't changed to this day.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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