Elementary Textbooks

The first striking change in 19th century textbooks was the inclusion of lesson plans in curricular materials, led by Samuel Worcester’s Primer. Prior to this, the concept of teaching (and planning!) was limited to assigning reading and rote memorization. The school’s educational philosophy could be summed up as such: All pupils shall have memorized and correctly repeated one section before moving on to the next. Secondly, the issuance of graded textbooks allowed urban schools to create graded classes. The first discipline to adopt such materials was language, e.g. the Eclectic readers by Emerson, and the New York readers, written by Samuel Wood. Wood’s series was the catalyst and inspiration for the most popular set of graded readers, the McGuffey reader.

Era of Textbook Publishing

Noah Webster

Noah Webster

To refine and establish our language, to facilitate the acquisition of grammatical knowledge and diffuse the principles of virtue and patriotism is the task I have labored to perform.” Webster, Noah. An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking. Hartford, Conn.: Hudson & Goodwin, 1789.

Noah Webster’s quote summarizes his reasoning behind writing and publishing school textbooks, and he is arguably one of the best-known textbook writers from the 19th century. Webster was also the individual responsible for persuading individual states to pass copyright clauses to protect his works from plagiarism by other authors, and to collect royalties on his intellectual property.

What this meant for textbook publishing was that once an author had written a text, a copy could be taken to another state, or city, and be reprinted by a printer there, with some changes to make it a derivative work, and not an exact copy. In addition, it was a general practice for an author to sell a book to a publisher, who would print and sell the bound text. In doing so, the author transferred the copyright to the publisher, and unless the author retained personal copyright for the text, was not entitled to royalties from text reprints or copies. While royalty figures for this period are hard to find, the number of derivates published for texts speaks to how loosely copyright was interpreted and enforced.