From the late 1830’s until the early 1900’s William Holmes McGuffey’s “Eclectic Readers” were the most widely used school textbooks in the United States. To reach that position, however, they had to overcome a rocky start. Their original publisher was sued for copyright infringement by another publisher, Samuel Worcester, who claimed that McGuffey had plagiarized extensively from his own set of textbooks. McGuffey responded by removing every offending passage and adding new material. (During the Civil War, a Nashville, Tennessee, company that published the McGuffey Readers under its own imprint avoided copyright concerns because it was under the jurisdiction of the Confederate States of America.)
The McGuffey Readers became enormously popular for several reasons. Their publication coincided with the development of free public schools, and the books reflected the values and tastes of the age. The intended audience—conservative, white, middle-class Protestants—embraced the books eagerly. Chief features of the books included controlled word repetition and sentence length; phonics and penmanship exercises; selections from great writers; short factual essays on a wide range of subjects; and an emphasis on moral obedience and self-reliance.
The readers were not universally welcomed, however. They were denounced by some for their religiosity; for perpetuating sexual stereotypes and traditional roles; for ignoring, or showing obvious...
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