Paradigm, No. 6 (October, 1991)
The Textbook as a
Brooklyn College of the City University of
Of all textbooks, those designed to teach elementary reading sell the greatest numbers.1 This is as true of the past as today: the New England Primer was a colonial best-seller. 2 In the late-18th and 19th centuries in the United States, there were two best-selling reading textbooks. The first was Noah Websters spelling book, designed to teach reading as much as spelling, when the spelling (or alphabet) method was the only methodology in use. The second was the series titled the McGuffey Readers, after its original author, William Holmes McGuffey. In this essay, I explore the role played by these authors in the commercial aspects of their textbooks and its relationship to the books success.
Noah Webster, author of the so-called "blue-back speller" (dubbed that from its familiar blue paper covers) was the Noah Webster who wrote the first genuinely American dictionary in 1828, and whose name has been synonymous with dictionaries ever since. He was also the person who, single-handed, introduced all those differences between American and British spelling -- center/centre, honor/honour --that persist to this day.3 In his own time, however, Webster had been known to Americans long before he published his dictionary: his name was a household word for his spelling book title the American Spelling Book from 1787 on. In all its various editions, Websters speller is conservatively estimated to have sold at least 70 million copies by the 1890s, when it was still going strong.4
The various editions of the McGuffey Readers, first published in 1836, are reckoned to have sold over 125 million copies by 1900. The series had sold 7 million copies as early as 1850, and by 1890 it was the standard school reader in 37 states.5 The McGuffey Readers were reprinted as late as 1928 by Henry Ford, in a nostalgic evocation of what he called their "solid character-building qualities."6 These sales figures for Websters and McGuffeys textbooks are staggering by any standards.
William Holmes McGuffey was remarkable for his almost total lack of involvement in the publicity aspects of a work that bore his name throughout most of the 19th century. In fact, the case of the McGuffey Readers is really a prototype of the turn that textbook publishing would take and has taken ever since -- where a reading textbook is the product of a committee rather than a single person, and of a publishing house rather than an individual.
In the first place, unlike Noah Webster in the 1780s, William Holmes McGuffey in the 1830s did not conceive the idea of publishing a series of reading textbooks himself. Instead, he was invited to write them by the publishing company of Truman and Smith of Cincinnati, Ohio (after Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher, had declined their invitation), who wanted to publish a series aimed at the western market.7 McGuffey, an ordained Presbyterian minister, was at that point a professor of ancient languages at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. His qualifications for writing an elementary text presumably rested upon his earlier experience as a schoolmaster -- where he was remarkable for his disciplinary severity. Moreover, his "method of teaching", as one of his students reminisced, "was not a very good one. He never illustrated anything by addressing the eye."8 He is also said to have published, in London, a book titled Methods of Reading.9
The contract McGuffey signed with Truman and Smith in 1833 awarded him royalties of 10 percent of the profits until he had received $1,000, after which every penny of profit reverted to the company.10 Assisted by a trunkload of elementary texts "of the East" sent him by his publishers, McGuffey completed the First and Second Readers in time for their publication in 1836. They were originally called the Eclectic Series without any mention of his name. The Third and Fourth Readers appeared the following year.11
William Holmes McGuffeys own involvement in the series was over by 1843, although he may have taken a few publicity trips on the series behalf.12 Family tradition has it that his wife, Harriet Spining McGuffey, composed the primer, which appeared in 1837, and his younger brother, Alexander Hamilton McGuffey, was unquestionably responsible for the Fifth and Sixth Readers, published several years later, when William was no longer in Cincinnati.13 After 1843, other men were asked to make the many revisions to the readers that were so helpful in maintaining their popularity.14
Professional conflicts over the issue of student discipline (McGuffey being on the side of severity) led to his departure from the Miami University in the fall of 1836 to become president of Cincinnati College. Three years later, he left that institution for the presidency of Ohio University at Athens, Ohio.15
After a promising start, this appointment turned distinctly sour. When McGuffey unwisely constructed a fence around the college to keep the cows from roaming the college grounds, the town of Athens held a torchlight parade in protest. The young of the town began slinging mudballs at McGuffey whenever they caught sight of him, in spite of, as one biographer has put it, "his manly response of lashing back with a long red-leather horsewhip."16 At odds with students, faculty and townsfolk alike, McGuffey resigned his presidency abruptly in 1843. He became Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia two years later.17 His royalties from the Readers soon reached their limit, of course, but after the end of the Civil War his publishers began sending him a barrel of "choice smoked hams" every Christmas as a token of their appreciation.18
In 1841, Truman and Smith split up the companys assets. Winthro B. Smith retained the McGuffey Readers and went on to make a publishing fortune.19
Not only can we not credit McGuffey with any of the subsequent success of the readers, as they were revised by others, but even what we know he did write is somewhat compromised by charges of plagiarism. McGuffey and the firm of Truman and Smith were sued for plagiarism in 1837 by the firm of Copeland and Samuel Worcester, author and publisher of the Worcester Readers.20 The truth of this allegation was acknowledged by an out-of-court settlement in favour of the Worcester team for $2,000, as well as the immediate revision of the offending McGuffey Readers.21
In sum, then, McGuffey played virtually no part in the publicity aspects of the book and was more influenced by others in their composition than is usually acknowledged. It was Winthrop Smith who pushed the series with vigour and skill. Books cannot, however, be turned into best-sellers by publicity alone. There were merits to the content of the McGuffey Readers that were certainly a key to their success. While these cannot be detailed here, they represented a major change in the direction of child-centredness.
Noah Webster, in contrast to McGuffey, was involved with the commercial aspects of his textbooks from the start. He was bom in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1758, to a farming family. He attended Yale College during the revolutionary years. After Yale, Webster turned to that old standby, teaching while he studied for the bar exam. Unable, once he had passed it, to get enough money to support himself, he opened a classical school first in Sharon, Connecticut, and then in Goshen, New York where he composed his first book, a spelling book 22
In the absence of a national copyright law, Webster selected as his publishers Hudson & Goodwin of Hartford, in Connecticut, one of the few states to have a copyright statute. Burdened with the unwieldy and pretentious title of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I - - a title suggested by Ezra Stiles, president of Yale -- the famous Webster speller was bom in the fall of 1783. Webster called it a "mite [thrown] into the common treasure of patriotic exertions," and claimed that it would "diffuse an uniformity and purity of language" throughout America. The next two parts of the Institute appeared in the next two years -- the grammar in 1784 and the reader (an advanced text with poems, patriotic essays and so forth) in 1785.23
By 1785, then, Webster had his first three books in print. At this point he decided to go on what we can call a promotional tour. He shipped his books ahead of him, and travelled south. The tour would last from May 1785 to November 1786. (One of his hosts was George Washington and he made a friend of Benjamin Franklin.) 24
The point at which Webster was in Charleston, South Carolina (in July 1785) is an archetypal example of the kinds of activities that Webster engaged in on behalf of his books, and which he would pursue for every book that he published. His activities fell into two categories -- protection against plagiarism and promotion. His promotional activities themselves can be subdivided into a range of techniques: advertising; "notices" (which we would call press releases, and which, unlike advertising, were free); donations of his books; examination copies for teachers; and finally, recommendations of his books.25
Here at Charleston, only two months into his tour, we see Webster undertaking every one of these activities. As far as protection was concerned, his first act was to register his books for copyright in the appropriate office. (Such protection, indeed, was one of the major motivations for his travels.) Then he launched his promotional efforts. He put an advertisement and a notice in the local Charleston newspaper. His authorship of the latter is revealed by the wording: "Three hundred copies [of his books] have been donated by the ingenious Mr. Webster to the Mount Sion Society for the benefit of Winnsborough College."26
As this makes clear, Webster was making use of his third publicity device, donations of books. He gave 200 copies of the speller and 100 of the grammar to the Mount Sion Society, a literary organization. Webster did not give away 300 copies of his own work out of the sheer goodness of his heart. As he wrote to Hudson & Goodwin, his publishers, about this very donation, "This is the best step I have ever taken -- They cost me about 12 pounds & are worth £25 to them; & I am secure of their encouragement."27
Websters fourth approach was to leave examination copies with teachers, in the hope that these would generate his fifth approach, a publishable recommendation. Precisely this happened here. "The Gentlemen who have the care of the Grammar School in Charleston are much pleased with the Institute, & promised to give me their names after they had examined it with attention."28
Recommendations from satisfied schoolmasters were always a good resource, but Noah also allempted to get permission to use the names of prominent citizens. He asked both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin to give their names. Both had the sense to turn him down.29
To these five promotional activities, we must add three more: lectures, the use of agents, and published attacks on his competitors. On this early tour, Webster gave a weekly series of five lectures in various towns as a means of raising money. These were viewed by Webster as just one more way of attracting attention to his books. When he reached New York, for instance, on the return leg of his trip, he complained to his publishers: "The influence & prejudice of foreigners are all against me, and I find Lecturing is the best method of exciting the attention of people and overcoming prejudices. [My spelling books] will sell whilst I am here -- My Lectures will make them an object of notice."30
His use of agents and of blistering published attacks on his competitors would come later on in his life.31 At this point, however, Webster was his own best agent and had clearly bested Thomas Dilworths A New Guide to the English Tongue, which had served both as his model and his rival for the speller.32 It was not until much later in his life that he would employ agents, paid and unpaid, including his son William and his sons-in-law.
At this point it might appear that it was Websters genius at book promotion alone that made the spellers sell so well. But that cannot be wholly the case, because not all of his books sold equally well, although he put equal effort into them all. The speller, helped of course by being the equivalent of an elementary reading textbook, did much better than the grammar or the advanced reader of the Institute.33
The reasons for the success of the speller, then, were several. First, although this cannot be supported here, the speller was in fact an improvement over its rivals. Its numerical system of indicating pronunciation, for instance, was novel and ingenious, and it had other advantages.34 Second, Webster used a range of publicity techniques to foster its progress. Third, he was able to capitalize upon revolutionary sentiment, which preferred an American text to an English one, when it came to purchasing a childs first reading instructional text.
The one factor to which we cannot attribute the success of the speller was Websters own personal popularity. One comment, that "In conversation, he is even duller than in writing, if that be possible," was a purely private one, but in general the charge most often levelled against Webster was one of vanity. There is an apocryphal story that relates to Websters journey to Philadelphia in 1787 to put out a new version of the speller, now for the first time to be titled The American Spelling Book. When his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush congratulated him on his arrival, Webster supposedly responded, "Sir, you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion."35 Webster was now supporting himself and his family (he had married Rebecca Greenleaf of Boston in 1789) by writing. In 1790 he copyrighted the speller under the United States first copyright law. By this time he had expanded his printers beyond Hudson and Goodwin, and had publishers in several states. But he was not benefiting from the number of copies sold. In 1804, therefore, when the14-year copyright was about to expire, Webster revised his speller, naming it The American Spelling Book, revised edition. He also reorganized his licensing arrangements, instituting what may well have been the first royalty payments in America: he would now receive a penny for every spelling book printed.36
In 1816, aware that the copyright was due to expire again in two years, Webster made a radically new arrangement and sold the entire copyright of the speller to Hudson & Co. of Hartford, the successors to his first Connecticut publishers. By 1818, the firm had advanced Webster $23,000 for all rights to the speller for the full 14-year term. There was a catch in this: young William Webster, Websters only son, was to be apprenticed to the firm, with a view to becoming a partner.37
From 1816 on, therefore, Webster was, for the first -- and last -- time in his life, totally divorced from the commercial aspects of his spelling book. He needed this freedom, for as early as 1800 he had been toiling away at writing his great dictionary. In 1824, with young William as his amanuensis, he voyaged to Europe to complete his research. After a stint in Paris, the two Websters moved on to Cambridge, England, where Noah tried unsuccessfully to interest Cambridge dons in his spelling reforms. His work went faster than he anticipated and in January, 1825, still in Cambridge, he came, with trembling hand, to write the last definition of the last word in his dictionary.38
British publishers were too involved in a new edition of Todds Johnson to want to print Websters dictionary, so he and William bundled up their bulky manuscript an sailed back to America. Three years later The American Dictionary of the English Language finally came off the press, bankrupting its publisher as it did so.39 Webster sent of a copy to Queen Victoria.
The following year, in 1829, Webster looked once again at his first and most enduringly successful work his spelling book. He did not like what he saw. His dislike was no doubt enhanced by the fact that Williams apprenticeship with Hudson & Co. had ended, not with a partnership, but in disaster. Webster accused Henry Hudson, head of the firm, of having allowed the spelling book to slip from its grasp on the textbook market, and informed him that he intended to bring out a brand new edition. There is growing dismay in Hudsons letters as he realizes that not only was he going to be forbidden any share in publishing the new book, but that Webster had every intention of bringing it out before the expiration of the copyright (in 1832) of the old American Spelling Book, which would thereby be greatly reduced in value.40
Webster was right: the speller had been losing ground. The fault was not Henry Hudsons, however, but the books. In truth, the American Spelling Book, now40 years old, looked thoroughly old-fashioned. Aware that times had changed but that he had not kept up with them, Webster sought help, for the first time in his life, in the composition of his spelling book He signed a contract with a New York schoolteacher named Aaron Ely, who died a few months after the new speller was published. There is tremendous irony in the fact that the most famous spelling book in the world, this 1829 version that became known as "the old blueback", was in fact a joint production by two men, only one of whose names appears as the author. The title of the new textbook did nothing to allay Henry Hudsons fears: it is The Elementary Spelling Book, being an Improvement on the American Spelling Book.41
The launching of the Elementary Spelling Book of 1829 bears a striking resemblance to that of the first speller in 1783. Its early years were crucial: after all, it was actually competing against its own earlier incarnation as the American Spelling Book. Once again, the key elements to its success were those that had operated in the case of the early editions: its internal merits, its protection against plagiarism, and its publicity.
Webster was prepared to leave the compilation of the textbook to someone else, but not its promotion. Between July 1829 and June 1831, he took charge of the work and with his inimitable attention to detail, his seemingly inexhaustible energy, and his marvellous powers of concentration, focussed those aspects that he had always considered important. In a grand reprise of his earlier battle, Webster once again used all those tactics that had proved so successful in publicizing the book in the past. Moreover, in the Elementary he once again had a better mousetrap -- his diacritica marking scheme replaced the old numerical system, and, thanks to Aaron Ely, the work looked much more "modern".42
There was one major difference between the two launchings: Websters personal popularity. You will recall that he was thought dull and vain as a young man. Now, at the age of 72, all that had changed. Now he was considered the beloved patriot-intellectual. When he went to Washington, as he did in 1830, to bolster the cause of -- what else -- copyright reform by the weight of his personal presence, his heart was warmed by the reception he received from members of Congress. "They had learned in my books -- they were glad to see me, and ready to do any kindness in their power. . . Indeed, I know of nothing that has given me more pleasure in my Journeys, the last summer and this winter [these, of course, had been publicity journeys] than the respect and kindness manifested towards me in consequence of the use of my books. It convinces me that my fellow citizens consider me as their benefactor and the benefactor of my country."43
In 1835 Webster attempted to control the publication of his books even further by publishing them himself, through the medium of his son. He sent William off to join a publishing firm in Cincinnati that was to be dedicated to printing his books. The whole venture ended in bankruptcy, but it does enable us to see, through Williams letters to his father, the birth of that other publishing miracle, the McGuffy Readers. "Prof. McGuffey is very much your friend," wrote William in the fall of 1836. (A friend of Webster meant a man who had adopted Websters spelling reforms.) A little over a year later he wrote, "The Eclectic Series by Pres McGuffey is getting an immense run."44
The wheel has now come full circle, and from then until now children would learn to read, not from long lists of spelling words like those in the Webster speller, but from books like the McGuffey Readers, which have child-centred content and real stories featuring children. Websters blueback speller would live on, but now mostly as a spelling book in the modern sense, not as an introductory reading text.
There was one notable exception to this transformation of the spelling book. At the end of the Civil War, sales of the speller jumped from their normal tempo of a million copies a year to a million and a half. The newly freed slaves were purchasing thousands of copies of the blueback speller in order to learn to read. It was a final tribute to the role the speller had played for so long in teaching Americans to read.45
1. For example, in the U.S. in 1984, in thousands of dollars, reading textbooks sold $241,766, more than three times the sales of the next largest language-related category, English textbooks (grammar, composition), $69,687. E. Jennifer Monaghan and E. Wendy Saul The Reader, the Scribe, the Thinker: A Critical Look at the History of American Reading and Writing Instruction. In Thomas S. Popkewitz (ed.), in The Formation of School Subjects: The Struggle for Creating an American Institution ed. (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1987) p. 94.