You are here

Education in America

November 18, 2013--In celebration of American Education Week, November 18-22, this slideshow (scroll down for captions) explores a chief educational tool for teaching of literacy: the reading textbook, often known as a reader. Readers are usually compilations of fiction and/or nonfiction, and have been authored and printed in the US for centuries. This slideshow gives a glimpse to ongoing development of readers, their authors and reading education from the late 18th to the first decades of the early 20th century.

The materials selected for this slideshow were digitized and are part of the Harvard Library digital collection Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership and Reading History. The original materials can be found in Gutman Library's Historical Textbooks Collection.


Noah Webster (1758-1843) was an American textbook pioneer who published some of the most successful early American textbooks, which were used to educate generations of students. He authored several grammar and spelling textbooks in the early 1780s, including An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, which was first published in 1785. The fifth edition, (its frontspiece is pictured above), was printed in 1794 in Boston.

Noah Webster's texts were deliberately "American," using the spelling, pronunciation and grammar found in the US rather than Britain. Webster served in the American Army during the Revolutionary War and was later active in the Federalist Party. The title page of his An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking (pictured above) includes a quote from Mirabeau: "Begin with the Infant in his Cradle: let the first Word he lisps be WASHINGTON."

Worcester's Primer

Samuel Worcester (1793-1844) was a Swedenborgian minister, teacher and author of several readers. He challenged the prevailing "alphabet method" of instruction and stated that a child should learn to "read words by seeing them, hearing them pronounced and having their meanings illustrated, and afterwards may learn to analyze them or name letters of which they are composed." Worcester's Primer of English Language was published in Boston in 1826 (a lesson is pictured above).

Cobb Juvenile Reader, 1833

Lyman Cobb (1800-1864) was a New York-based textbook author. He authored several significant readers including Juvenile Readers, first published in 1830. It has been suggested that he was the first author to conceive of a set of graded readers. The frontspiece to the Juvenile Reader No. 1 (pictured above) depicts a teacher leading a small group of boys in a reading exercise. This copy was printed in Oxford, NY in 1833.

Bumstead Third Reader, 1843

Josiah Freeman Bumstead (1787-1868) was a Boston-based merchant. He was also a member of the Boston Primary School Committee and authored a series of readers that were officially adopted by Boston's primary schools shortly after their first publication in the early 1840s. The Third Reading Book in the Primary School, published in 1843, included a frontspiece (pictured above) that depicted a school teacher conducting a reading exercise in a coeducational classroom.

Monroe, 1877

Lewis Baxter Monroe (1825-1879) was considered one of the 19th century's most influential American educators in the field of elocution and, in the 1870s, authored a series of readers that placed strong emphasis on the value of teaching the sounds of letters and their many combinations. In the Chart Primer or First Steps in Reading, published in 1877, he advised teachers that a "little child should not meet any word in his lesson which he has not already been taught to use in conversation." The second lesson (pictured above) was an exercised related to the sound of the long vowel "i." 

Ward Second Reader, 1897

Edward G. Ward (1846-1901) was the borough superintendent of schools in Brooklyn, NY and he published the series Rational Method in Reading during the 1890s. These schoolbooks employed a widespread usage of diacritical marks to help aid a child’s verbal pronunciation of words encountered on the written page. The Second Reader was published was in 1897 (pictured here is the first page of the third lesson).

Arnold Second Reader, 1902

Sarah Louise Arnold (1859-1943) was the principal author of the Silver, Burdett & Co series Stepping Stones to Literature. Arnold served as a supervisor of schools in Boston when the series was first published in 1897. She claimed that her series featured "better literature than the average reader" and that the eight volumes were "adapted to the modern graded school." Pictured above is the cover to the Second Reader.

Arnold Second Reader, 1902 (2)

Stepping Stones to Literature had a progression of nursery rhymes, verse, poetry, fables, mythology and literature. The first lesson of the Second Reader (pictured above) is a retelling of the folk tale of Chicken LIttle (also known as Hen Penny).

Treadwell Third Reader, 1912

Published between 1910 and 1915 by Row & Peterson, The Reading Literature Series was the first series to use, almost exclusively, adaptations of fairy tales, folklore and mythology for reading content. The principal authors of the series were Chicago-based educators Harriette Taylor Treadwell (1870-1931) and Margaret Free (born 1862). The Third Reader included a retelling of the Arabian Nights tale of Aladdin (the first page is pictured above). 

Beacon First Reader, 1917

James H. Fassett (1869-1930) was the author of The Beacon Readers first published by Ginn & Co. in 1912.  The publisher claimed that Fassett employed “phonetic principles which enable the reader to pronounce correctly nearly all the words of one syllable without the aid of diacritical marks and to divide words into syllables correctly without consulting a dictionary.” The First Beacon Reader included a retelling of rom the British nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built” (pictured here are the first lines from the poem).

Spaulding, 1919

Frank E. Spaulding (1856-1960) and Catherine T. Bryce (1871-1951) were coauthors of the Aldine Readers and served as administrators in Newton, MA public schools when the series was first published in 1906.  In addition to original content, the series featured literary selections.  The revised 1919 edition of the fourth grade reader included the George MacDonald poem “Wind and Moon” (pictured above are the first lines from the poem).