Earlier in August, my daughter and I went to the Louisa May Alcott house, which is also known as the Orchard House.
She had been with the Girl Scouts some years back, but I had never been.
I loved Little Women in second grade and spent the entire night under a sheet with a flashlight reading it, scrambling back in bed and turning off the flashlight when I heard Mother come down the stairs to my basement bedroom.
By morning, my eyelids wouldn't open and I begged to stay home from school. No such luck, Mother had said. I learned my lesson that very day. Could barely stay awake in school and my body was racked with the pain of two hours' sleep.
The story of Louisa May Alcott's life is absolutely fascinating.
In 1857, educator Amos Bronson Alcott purchased the two-houses (originally separate but now attached) that included a small apple orchard. The price of the two houses was $945, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it was his entire year's salary as a school superintendent.
If you consider that many school superintendents now make upwards of $100,000, many regions (including Massachusetts) this kind of money won't buy you a lot, but in the days before financing, coming up with a sum to buy a house was difficult for all but the wealthy. The Alcotts were not wealthy, even though they did own their home.
Louisa May Alcott's mother, Abigail May Alcott, came from a wealthy New England family, and a great aunt of hers was in the Quincy family, who married John Hancock.
In her own life, Abigail Alcott became one of the first social workers.Â Abigail's brother was the first Unitarian minister in New York state, and it was through him that Abby met Bronson. Abigail and Bronson married in King's Chapel, in Boston.
Bronson Alcott, however, was a dreamer -- which did not increase his earnings but he left his indelible mark on society, for which we are ever grateful.
The family had had difficulty in paying rent, due to Bronson Alcott's off-and-on earnings. A wonderful friend of the family, Ralph Waldo Emerson, along with Mrs. Alcott's family money, helped Bronson buy the two houses in Concord, Mass. Emerson believed in Bronson Alcott's vision, which included that women should also be educated.
Bronson Alcott was born in 1799 and taught himself to read by forming letters in charcoal on a wooden floor.
As a leader of the Transcendentalist movement, Bronson believed that every human being possesses innate goodness and intuition, and that this is where the fountain of knowledge stems from -- and that it is the responsibility of a good teacher to help these innately good forces unfold in the student in a beneficial way.
His daughter Louisa said of her father's teaching: ''My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the childâ€™s nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strasbourg goose, with more than it could digest."
Louisa loved to beat boys in a race and declared no boy could be her friend until she'd out-raced him.
Bronson taught in Connecticut, Boston and Pennsylvania, and believed that music, art, nature study and physical education were disciplines that should be taught. It is to him that we owe that these disciplines are taught in public schools.
These ideas were not popular in the schools where Bronson taught. Parents did not trust these new ideas and withdrew their children from the schools, resulting in the Alcott family having to move about 20 times in 30 years.
Another facet of Transcendentalist thought was self-reliance (also the name of an essay by Emerson). Bronson's happiest times were when he was superintendent of the schools in Concord, a position he held from 1859 through 1864. He had a lifelong dream for a school of philosophy, which became realized in 1879.
Because of the family's continued financial difficulties, the family was frugal.
When Louisa May published her first, and most famous book, Little Women, she used her generous royalties to help provide for her family, which she also did with the royalties of her successive books.
Louisa May's education was solely at home, but truly, all education is from within. Her life, however, was not a bed of roses.
During the Civil War, Bronson Amos was too old to serve, but Louisa May Alcott went to the front to serve as a nurse. She was stricken with Typhoid fever, which occurs when there is a lack of sanitation. Treatment with mercury was the standard practice of the time, and it was not long before Louisa began to show signs of mercury poisoning, which affected her health and which shortened her life, as she died at 56, two days after her father, who was 89.
Louisa never married, but the books she wrote live on. Little Women was her most famous, followed by Little Men, and Jo's Boys.
The story of how she came to write Little Women is quite charming. She had published poetry and details of hospital life during the civil war, in her 20s.
When Louisa was 35, her publisher asked if she could write about little girls, because the publisher thought girls would love to read about other little girls. Louisa replied that she didn't particularly care for little girls, and didn't know any little girls, but perhaps stories based on her and her sisters would suffice.
Louisa used her little 'shelf desk' that her father had made for her, to write Little Women.
The rooms where events took place in Little Women, such as the dress-up plays that took place in the dining room, and the characters themselves, were largely fashioned on the Alcott family.
The fictional March family, with Marmee (Mommy) March, was based on Alcott's mother, Abigail May Alcott.
Jo was based on Louisa, as both were tomboys and both also loved dressing up in theatrical costumes and acting out scenes they invented. Jo March was also the first childhood heroine who acted from her own inspiration, from her own personality, unlike all the other childhood heroines that publishers or writers devised as role models of good womanly behavior for children.
Jo married, but Louisa never did. Louisa loved writing from an early age, and was determined to be rich and famous some day. Growing up, Louisa had vowed to help her family through its financial troubles:
"I will do something by and by.Â Donâ€™t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and Iâ€™ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I wonâ€™t!"
Amy was based on May, (the letters were deliberately switched) both of whom loved painting. May AlcottÂ wanted desperately to paint and she won a place in the Paris Salon of the 19th century, and was noted for her paintings. She became very well known and also assisted a rambunctious neighbor boy in Concord, whose parents complained that their young son, Daniel, was carving the vegetables and everything he could get his hands on.
Amy helped young Daniel toÂ faithfully reproduce what he saw in his carvings -- and it is partly to the Alcott family that we owe the most famous sculptor of the 19th century, known for many statues, including his most famous in Washington, D.C. of Abraham Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial.
Yes, Daniel Chester French. Think what opportunities are lost when educational guidance is not there.
The character Beth, who had died of scarlet fever, was based on Louisa's sister, Elizabeth, who had died of scarlet fever (a serious complication of untreated strep throat) just before the Alcott family had moved into the Orchard house.
Louisa's sister Anna was the inspiration for Meg, who had loved acting. Anna was the first born and the most traditional. Anna's wedding was the inspiration for Meg's wedding in Little Women.
May was the inspiration for Amy, the painter. May married a Swiss businessman and lived in Paris, but died of childbed fever. May requested that her daughter be sent to Louisa for the care and upbringing.
Childbed fever was a common cause of maternal death in the 19th century and was caused solely by doctors not washing their hands. Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in Boston that the doctors would go straight from the autopsy room to the delivery room.
This seems egregious now, but in that era, germ theory was not known. Holmes insisted that doctors wash their hands, which was so remarkable an improvement in the lives of patients generally, particularly of women to survive delivering a child.
When Louisa was ill from mercury poisoning, she would leave a pillow lying down on the living room divan, so that people outside could see that Louisa was not receiving visitors that day. When Louisa was well, she would prop the pillow up on the divan and visitors would know that Louisa was receiving visitors.
In the Orchard house is a painting of Louisa when she was 39. She looked much older than her years and her cheeks had the telltale flush and her eyes the telltale dark shadows that some recognized, even then, as signs of mercury poisoning.
We have so much to be grateful forÂ ~ not only for the literary and artistic works of those who came before us ~ but also for the medical and social advances (and the technological advances) that enable us to live out our dreams more easily than at any time in history.
The kitchen in the Orchard house.
The dining room.
The Parlor, where the Alcott family acted out the plays they wrote.
Louisa May's bedroom. You can see her shelf desk, that her father had made for her. This little shelf desk is where she wrote.Â
The master bedroom.
May Alcott's room.
Here is a free ebook copy of Little Women. The publisher states that they hold the copyright, but this is not accurate. US Copyright law is life of author plus 70 years. Alcott died in 1888, so the book is in the public domain.
Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 â€“ March 6, 1888)
Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 â€“ March 6, 1888).
Buried along Author's Â Ridge in Sleepy HollowÂ Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. She was born in Germantown,Â Pennsylvania.