A restored home in Concord, Massachusetts, serves as the former residence of renowned author Louisa May Alcott and her family and revives the spirit of what made Little Women a phenomenon spanning over 150 years.
The Orchard House is where Louisa took a page from her family life to write the 1868 classic about the four March sisters coming of age in New England. The home serves as a museum featuring the “shelf desk” where Louisa wrote Little Women to artwork created by her youngest sister who inspired the character of Amy March.
Nov. 29 marks Louisa’s 189th birthday. Born in 1832 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, she was the second daughter of Transcendentalist philosopher and educator Amos Bronson Alcott. The family moved to Concord, known as the home of post-Revolutionary War American literary and philosophical greats including Louisa and her father, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Feminism and financial freedom
The house features the desk Louisa wrote Little Women. The desk, according to the curators, was built by her father at a time when desks were not considered appropriate for women to use. Louisa sat at the desk, day in and day out, to write her children’s classic while her mother, Abba May Alcott, brought tea to her bedroom occasionally, the curators said. She trained herself to be ambidextrous, using both hands to write her book.
Already the writer of several short stories and novels mainly for adults, Little Women was a book that Louisa’s publisher wanted to satisfy the young adult audience, especially the girls. She was told a story about four girls would rake in money. An introvert with a mood pillow still intact in the family room of the Orchard House, Louisa couldn’t draw inspiration from any friends, so she looked at her sisters to mold the characters and storylines that continued in subsequent books such as Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Once Little Women was published, it became a windfall for the financially struggling family. Though Bronson was a well-known educator and philosopher and Abba a social worker, the Alcotts seemed to still be considered impoverished. A Civil War nurse who battled illnesses on the battlefield, Louisa’s experiences as a seamstress, teacher, and governess are reflected in her novel, Work: A Story of Experience, one of the rare works available through the Orchard House gift shop.
The pullquote from the house’s website shows how Louisa promised herself to support her family and that also meant she wouldn’t marry in order to support their makeshift home that was originally built almost 200 years before the Alcotts bought it in 1857. Named for the over 40 apple trees that were on the property at the time of its sale, the Orchard House was a fixer-and-upper that experienced additions in later years to accommodate the growing family needs.
Artistry and abolitionism
With the Little Women profits, Louisa sent her youngest sister, Abigail May Alcott Nieriker, to Europe to study art because it was impossible for May to receive training in the U.S. as a woman. May would draw on the walls; her work revived by artists and historians in the Orchard House through tracing over a plastic sheet to reveal her original traces that had been damaged by age. Upon her European art tour, May wrote the book, Studying Art Abroad: And How to Do It Cheaply. Her real-life love for art is reproduced via Amy March, as the bulk of May’s artwork is featured in the house.
May’s most famous work, “La Negresse,” was viewed as her ticket to stardom if she hadn’t died at the age of 39 following childbirth. The portrait features an enslaved Black female, which was considered a complex work of art conveying the gloom of being a slave with a so-called good master.
The inspiration may have stemmed from the Alcotts’ strong belief in abolitionism. In the winter between 1846 and 1847, the Alcotts hosted a runaway slave traveling through the Underground Railroad to Canada. The area near the Orchard House is recognized as a part of the Underground Railroad network.
Heart and home
The house is located near Concord’s historic downtown that includes the Nathaniel Hawthorne estate. Because 80% of the artifacts in the Orchard House were owned by the Alcotts, photography of any kind inside is prohibited. Yet the items displayed creates the timeline of the family’s historical footprint.
Louisa’s burgundy mood pillow sits up on the sofa in the family room, a sign that she was open to socializing, the curators said. Her shelf desk is still intact, small and rounded wrapped across the wall near a floral watercolor piece by May. Dolls created by the sisters for the sons of the oldest daughter Anna Alcott Pratt when they moved back to the home after the sudden death of her husband are parked in a box in their added bedroom. A portrait of the third daughter, Elizabeth Sewell Alcott, sits on the piano, the only known image of the sister who died before the family moved into the Orchard House and inspired the character of Beth March.
For any Little Women fan, the house serves as an awe-inspiring literary adventure full of interesting facts about Louisa and her family.