Early American schoolbooks

>The first schoolbooks in the colonies were necessarily imported from Europe (mainly England), for the simple reason that early American printers could not meet the full demand for them until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Thinly populated areas, like central Pennsylvania and parts of Kentucky, did without textbooks until well into the nineteenth century. When there was such a lack, the Bible, or volumes of Addison or Goldsmith were used to fill it—any books that were handy were made to serve. Teachers in early America generally had little or no formal training; consequently, to study the texts these men and women used is to study the theory and practice of what we would now term “elementary education” as it existed in the colonies.

Although the word “reader” is not in the title, this work by Noah Webster (1758-1843) served as the first manual of its kind produced in America. Webster’s reader was a mainstay of American schools until the 1830’s, when it was replaced by William Holmes McGuffey’s Eclectic reader, which introduced the idea of graduated reading passages. In the “rules for speaking and reading,” Rule IV directs the student to “let the sentiments you express be accompanied with proper tones, looks, and gestures,” so that “if a person is rehearsing the words of an angry man, he should assume the same furious looks, his eyes should flash with rage, his gestures should be violent, and his utterance rapid and vehement.”
Lindlay Murray (1745-1826) was a Pennsylvania Quaker moralist and grammarian. The English Reader was conceived out of a series of visits to Murray by three teachers who sought his advice on how to teach English grammar. The English Reader is superior to those of Webster and his closest competitor Caleb Bingham in terms of typography and design, organization, and content. The works are divided into genres—among which are narrative, didactic, argumentative, descriptive, dialogues, speeches, and poetry. Murray’s books eventually became more popular than Webster’s (until the 1830’s), and were printed in tens of thousands of copies in England as well.

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