Above: Exterior of McGuffey house and museum. Photo: McGuffey House and MuseumMcGuffey House and Museum
Imagine children running up to the porch of a quaint Federalist home in Southwest Ohio. The world is quieter, and children ran through the trees and farms to meet Professor McGuffey on his doorstep. In the 1830s, William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873) allegedly workshopped the lesson plans that would be later incorporated into his infamous textbooks, The McGuffey Readers. These textbooks were the most popular set of schoolbooks in the United States for approximately a century (1830s to the 1920s). McGuffey revolutionized childhood education by making children’s reading and pronunciation exercises centered around their everyday lives. Unlike the previous textbook, The New England Primer, children were not taught how to read and write through dark and intimidating passages riddled with religious imagery and illusions to death. Rather, McGuffey chose to use farm animals and an American rural setting to inspire children to learn more about the world around them. McGuffey sold over 100 million copies by the end of the nineteenth century and inspired 5 generations of children with these affordable and relatable textbooks.
While McGuffey has passed on, you can still find another individual residing at that quaint, white porch. Mustachioed and a walking encyclopedia, Mr. Stephen Gordon, the McGuffey House and Museum’s Executive Director, will invite you to have your own personalized experience as you explore the museum. Before he leads you into the original home, Gordon will ask you if you are interested in the history of Miami University (where the museum is located), Ohio history, or education. For the sake of this experience, I will focus on McGuffey, his family, and his role at Miami University.
As you enter, you will walk into a more modern entry room that is not a part of the original nineteenth century structure. This is easily seen by the external bricks that are still visible on the lobby’s walls. While this room has the necessities of a restroom and a staff kitchen, it also serves as a gateway from the frenzy of modern life to the slow and quiet ambiance of nineteenth century, rural living.
Step into the kitchen, and you will find kitchenware from the region and handcrafted tables and armoires. While this space would have been where McGuffey’s wife, Harriet Spining McGuffey, spent most of her time, you do not feel her presence or the couple’s two daughters. Where visitors can see family life is in the antique bathtub that was believed to be lost to the ages until it was discovered by Miami employees almost 2 centuries later. Leaning against a wall by a picture window, the bathtub is metal and its paint has corroded. Shaped like an enormous disc, the bathtub is shallow and baffles contemporary viewers. In addition to its intriguing shape, the bathtub is a symbol of nineteenth century life. At a time when there was no running water and hygiene standards were considerably lower, families would bathe once a week, usually on Saturday evenings before church services. Traditionally, the family would use the same bath water and the father would go first, followed by the mother, and then the children. This is where the phrase, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” originates, but it also tells a personal story about gender and family dynamics. The father was the dominant figure of the family and would have spent the most time outside. While this is important, I am also reminded of how close families were during this period. They labored, ate, and worshipped together and even used the same bathwater. The isolation of the American West emphasized the necessity for a strong and close family unit. From McGuffey and his family’s writings, this is consistent with his own family life, as well.
Turning to the left, you will be guided into the library. Ironically, the library houses the majority of the McGuffey family’s artifacts, but it was built by the subsequent homeowner in 1860! However, you can still feel McGuffey’s presence as you are surrounded by his spectacles, letter charts, and his own desk. The most striking piece in the study is the original desk where McGuffey composed his Readers. Not only is it an important historical artifact, but it is also unique in its construction. McGuffey designed the octagonal desk so it had a drawers on each side. The tabletop also spun so McGuffey could easily access each drawer without getting up from his seat. As a college professor of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Moral philosophy, the desk enabled McGuffey to easily organize his paperwork. The desk is such a unique piece that McGuffey enthusiast Henry Ford built a replica for his Greenfield Village, though it later was destroyed in a fire and only the original remains. Miami Students used the desk in the library of Harrison Hall until it was given to the museum.
Exiting the library, you will enter the formal dining room. While you will not see a dining room table, you will see a painting from a local resident that served in the Civil War and the sideboard of Miami University’s first president, Robert Hamilton Bishop. I wish to highlight the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. McGuffey however. Painted approximately at the same time as the house’s construction, the McGuffey couple decided to have their portraits painted to demonstrate their status as a successful, middle class family. McGuffey greets you with a tall, balding forehead and an unassuming look that is neither a smile nor a frown. He is only in his thirties and is at the start of his education career. Mrs. McGuffey resides next to her husband on the adjacent wall with a black dress and her homemade bonnet. It is said that she wore this bonnet because it was Mr. McGuffey’s favorite. Bonding over much more than headwear, the couple met in Oxford, Ohio when McGuffey started his teaching position and Harriet was visiting her brother in town. It is believed that Harriet’s dowry paid for the house’s construction.
As you walk straight, you will be transported to a parlor adorned in the luscious, velvet curtains that were popular during the 1860s. The parlor serves as a period room so visitors can experience the material culture of the Civil War era, which includes a cannonball on the floor. Miami University was almost converted into a military school and had to shut down as young men served on both sides of the war. While certainly important to the viewer’s experience, this merely sets the scene. It is the portrait of McGuffey’s sister-in-law, Caroline McGuffey, that invites the audience into the space. The second wife to McGuffey’s brother, Alexander, she demonstrates the fashion and grace of a young socialite of the city. Wearing a fashionably white gown like Queen Victoria’s, she is ethereal and a true nineteenth century urbanite. As a resident of Cincinnati, Caroline hosted the Tafts and was a prolific artist. McGuffey’s family is also seen in the room by decorative dogs in front of the fireplace. They were donated by McGuffey’s nephew and Caroline and Alexander’s son, Kingsley MacGuffey.
You notice a staircase to the right of the parlor. As the wood squeaks under your feet and the old grandfather clock ticks, you arrive on the second floor. To your immediate left is office space. It was originally a second-floor porch that was enclosed in the 1920s. The second door to your left is the master bedroom. Walking into the space, you can feel the presence of not just McGuffey but other members of the local community. McGuffey and Harriet are depicted on the wall. McGuffey is in his last stages of life unlike his portrait downstairs. However, this room is a family and community space. The bed belonged to a family who lived in the home during the early twentieth century. Gordon will tell you that he once had a visitor who was born in that bed come back to the museum to visit his birthplace and home. There are also portraits on the wall of unidentified Oxford residents during McGuffey’s time. While they cannot be identified, they are still displayed as community members and potential friends of the McGuffeys. Finally, there is a small set of items which could easily be overlooked, a picture of Peter Bruner, a Miami University custodian and greeter during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and his personal memoir. His story is one of courageousness, tenacity, and determination. He ran away from slavery over ten times and became a staple to the Miami University and Oxford community. McGuffey’s bedroom is a place for not only the couple but a space for recognizing the community at large.
The next room used to be a bedroom, but it is now the “History Room.” Prepare for your senses to be overloaded as you try to take in fascinating objects from Alexander McGuffey’s Scottish themed oak chair to the original photographs of the McGuffey family. Being true to honoring Miami University history, the space also has maps of the campus, pictures of McGuffey’s son-in-law Miami University President Andrew Hepburn, and McGuffey’s bookshelves, now housing the university’s yearbooks. As you view the space, you see how McGuffey’s life, this house, and Miami University blend in this space. They can never be separated from one another.
Finally, there is a small children’s bedroom, Jane’s room. This space was the bedroom of Jane Roudebush. It now houses antique toys and a funeral portrait of a deceased child by George White called Portrait of Louis Fitton (1866). Reflecting the era’s high child mortality rate, parents often had paintings and photographs taken of their children after they passed. While Jane’s bedroom is a happy space, the museum is a family space that remembers emphasizes the importance of family in life and in death.
The McGuffey House and Museum was a family home from 1833 to 1958. The last owner W. P. Roudebush sold the home to Miami University. By Emma Gould Blocker’s bequest, the McGuffey House and Museum is supported along with research on Ohio history. The McGuffey House and Museum was registered as a National Historic Landmark. From 1999 to 2002, the house went under renovation. The McGuffey House and Museum has served as a popular attraction for educators, students, and families who want to explore the history of the “Schoolmaster to the Nation” and the rich history of Miami University of Ohio.
Please visit The McGuffey House and Museum’s website at https://miamioh.edu/cca/mcguffey-museum/.
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Kaylie E. Schunk is a former employee of The McGuffey House and Museum. This job made her accidentally fall in love with museums, and she has never looked back! Ms. Schunk has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history from Miami University, and she is currently pursing a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University. She is eternally grateful for The McGuffey House and Museum for launching her career into the museum world. She can be found eating Thai food, reading a fantasy book, or exploring a new museum with friends!