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October 02, 2002 1 min read
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The Schoolmaster’s House

William Holmes McGuffey, known as the “schoolmaster to the nation,” compiled the first edition of his famous readers in his home in Oxford, Ohio. After a two-year renovation, the 1833 Federal-style house reopened last month, offering history buffs a chance to step back in time.

The red-brick house, owned by the nearby Miami University of Ohio, where McGuffey taught ancient languages and moral philosophy, is a national historic landmark and museum. Along with various editions of his McGuffey Eclectic Readers, it contains the author’s desk—an octagonal table with eight drawers built by an Oxford craftsman.

Curator Betty Bach said McGuffey is believed to have sorted his writing materials into the drawers as he worked.

The set of books was first published in 1836. They are still in print: About 100,000 copies of the edition revised in 1879 sell each year, Ms. Bach said. The six readers and one speller carried a strong civic and moral message, owing in part to McGuffey’s training as a Presbyterian minister.

“A lot of the characteristics that we as Americans like to believe define us have been repeated over and over again in the McGuffeys,” Ms. Bach said. “We’re hardworking, cheerful, honest, friendly—really go-getters.”

McGuffey arrived at the brand-new Miami University of Ohio in 1826 and stayed for 11 years. The readers he compiled there, using previously published stories and some of his own tales, were the dominant textbook in 37 states from 1836 to 1920, with more than 122 million copies sold, Ms. Bach said. McGuffey, born in 1800, died in 1873.

The books were used to teach reading, spelling, and elocution, while delivering a strong dose of civics and religion. Later editions played down the religious messages as public educators became concerned about the separation of church and state.

Today, the first McGuffey readers remain popular with home schoolers, Ms. Bach said.

Since the work was completed in June, the museum has logged more than 900 visitors. At the dedication last month, the house was adorned with an Ohio historic marker, part of the state’s effort to celebrate its history in preparation for its bicentennial next year.

“They’re a wonderful guide for behavior,” Ms. Bach said of the readers. “They’re very dated, of course. But it still resonates.”

—Ann Bradley


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