Textbooks, Early

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TEXTBOOKS, EARLY. Bibles, almanacs, embroidered samplers, and broadsheets were the most common textual materials in most colonial homes. Children used hornbooks to learn to read short phrases and proverbs. A hornbook consisted of a wooden paddle holding a piece of printed text that was covered with a layer of transparent cow's horn to protect the text.

As schools proliferated in New England, most used a version of The New England Primer, copied from English texts, and most schoolbooks were imported from England. After the Revolution, the schoolteacher Noah Webster lobbied for copyright legislation to protect his book, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, later renamed The American Spelling Book, which he began marketing in 1783. He supplemented the speller with a grammar (1784) and a reader (1785), and by 1804, more than 1.5 million copies of his books had been sold. Webster's books met the new nation's need for a distinctly American product. He standardized American English spelling and grammar, and his books emphasized nationalism and patriotism. By the time Webster died in 1843,24 million copies of his books had been sold.

Schoolbooks were a popular product as the nation expanded and public schools were established. In 1840 various publishers sold 2.6 million schoolbooks. In 1837, William McGuffey's Eclectic Reader was published, directed at the burgeoning western market. Truman and Smith Publishing Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered the job of compiling reading selections for four graded readers to Catharine Beecher, who had authored other texts, as well as coauthoring Primary Geography for Children with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher was too busy establishing the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati, and recommended McGuffey, an experienced educator. McGuffey gathered previously published pieces for the first edition and did little actual work on later editions. The McGuffey readers were revised numerous times, with all new material at three different points. Major editions were published in 1836 (7 million copies sold), 1857 (40 million sold), 1879 (60 million sold), and 1890–1920 (15 million sold).

As the century wore on, schoolbooks made fewer references to religion and more to honesty and self-reliance. Charity to others was extolled, as well as respect for authority. Illustrations grew more important as printing technology became more sophisticated, and by the 1880s the books were heavily illustrated, usually showing children and animals in idealized pastoral or natural settings.

Rural organizations such as the Farmer's Alliance and National Grange began challenging the reliance on textbooks. The Grange lobbied for more vocational training, practical knowledge, and science, and less rote memorization. Grange-sponsored schools were established in southern states, Michigan, and California. The Grange advocated free textbooks for children and urged states to buy books in bulk to save money. In 1890 the Farmer's Alliance charged textbook publishers with creating a "Textbook Trust," claiming the American Book Company (publisher of the McGuffey books) controlled the market and prices. Schoolbook publishers responded to local critics because they were subject to community approval; high school and college texts were not. By the end of the century, John Dewey, author of School and Society (1899), led progressive educational reforms, urging hands-on learning rather than complete reliance on texts.


Apple, Michael W., and Linda K. Christian-Smith, eds. The Politics of the Textbook. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Tanner, Daniel, and Laurel Tanner. History of the School Curriculum. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Laurie WinnCarlson

See alsoHornbook ; McGuffey's Readers ; New England Primer ; Webster's Blue-Backed Speller .