Comparison: 1912 and 2012 Algebra Textbooks

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, January 23, 1912:  Sleigh rides are a thing of the past now. There is no danger of freezing yourself now. I’m at a standstill in Algebra.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Maybe Grandma was struggling in algebra because the textbook was confusing.

To get a sense of how algebra textbooks have changed over the past 100 years. I compared the promotional materials for an algebra textbook published in 2012 with the information in the preface of an algebra textbook published in 1912.

The Books

2012 Book

Beginning & Intermediate Algebra, (4th Edition) by John Tobey, Jr., Jeffrey Slater,  Jamie Blair, and Jennifer Crawford (Pearson)

1912 book

Durrell’s School Algebra by Fletcher Durrell (Charles E. Merrill Company)


Of course the book published in 2012 is brightly colored with lots of pictures and figures (and there are numerous supplemental online resources). The 1912 book is black and white with only a few pictures.

The 1912 book looks denser than then new one. However, the chapter titles are similar. For example both books had a chapter called Factoring.


2012:  “. . . builds essential skills one at a time by breaking the mathematics down into manageable pieces. This practical “building block” organization makes it easy for students to understand each topic and gain confidence as they move through each section.”

1912:  “The main object in writing this School Algebra has been to simplify principles and give them interest, by showing more plainly, if possible, than has been done heretofore, the practical or common-sense reason for each step or process.”


2012:  “Student Practice problems are paired with every example in the text . . .”

1912: “A large number of problems. . . .”

Review and Reinforce

2012:  “Students will find many opportunities to check and reinforce their understanding of concepts throughout the text . . .”

1912: “Numerous and thorough reviews of the portion of the Algebra already studied are also called for.”

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