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Don’t miss the special exhibit of rare artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

On Thursday I toured Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was anxious to see the artifacts pictured in The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson and took a vacation day to see them as November can get swallowed up in holiday preparations.

If you live anywhere near Concord and can get to this exhibit, do so. The artifacts are on display only through the month of November.

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

I made a complete list of the artifacts on display. I wish I could show you pictures but taking photos is prohibited at Orchard House; you will need to get a copy of The Annotated Little Women.

Here goes:

In the kitchen:

  • First editions of Hospital Sketches and Little Women
  • Original photos of the Hosmer cottage known as Dove Cote and Orchard House (the one with the unique fence built by Bronson).

In the dining room:

  • A quote from Louisa, handwritten, circa 1869
  • An autographed dance fan including the autographs of Louisa, May and Ellen Emerson.

In the parlor:

  • Three Pickwick Club badges
  • A display dedicated to Anna and John including the original marriage certificate and photographs

In Louisa’s room:

  • Louisa’s homeopathic medicine kit (including a list of ailments treated by the medicines)
  • A lock of Louisa’s hair
  • Sketches of Louisa by May, one familiar (“The Golden Goose”), one not (she has a cat at her feet)
  • A photo of Alf Whitman sitting on the half moon desk
  • Original versions of publicity photos of Louisa circa 1870, 1875, 1880, and two from 1887.
  • An ad for Little Men
  • A sculpture by Daniel Chester French of two owls cuddling–this artifact was acquired just three weeks ago.

In May’s room:

  • Tracings May did of drawings by John Flaxman circa 1857; she then copied the tracings around the moldings of the windows
  • Original watercolor of Ernest Nieriker by May in their Meuden salon – the color was especially brilliant.
  • Original photograph of Alice Bartlett and May.

In the hallway under Lulu’s portrait:

  • An original copy of Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply by May Alcott Nieriker

In Bronson and Abba’s room:

  • Lizzie’s sewing kit, given to her by her father on her twenty-first birthday in 1856, It was surprisingly compact and featured a lovely inscription by Bronson.
  • A little book of Abba’s “Recipes and Simple Remedies” plus two original photos, one I had not seen before taken in 1850 but it is so small that it would be impossible to reproduce. The other was familiar, circa 1858.
  • Sketches of Frederick Pratt by May, one on a rocking horse and the other, playing Lizzie’s melodeon.
  • Small photos of John Pratt as a baby and toddler
  • Original photo of Lulu in the carriage

The best was saved for last–in Bronson’s study:

  • May’s original sketch of Bronson
  • Various original photos of Bronson
  • Original lithograph of the Temple School in Boston
  • And a display containing:
  • A lock of Lizzie’s hair with a tiny inscribed note in her perfect penmanship
  • Another lock of Lizzie’s combined with a lock of Bronson’s
  • Lizzie’s New Testament, an exquisite tiny book which originally belonged to Bronson–he gave it to Lizzie and then it was bequeathed to May.
  • Bronson’s copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, also a tiny book (though a little bigger than the New Testament and a lot thicker) with beautiful engraving

I was grateful for being in a small group so that I could examine each artifact freely. My only wish is for the lighting to have been better as it was a cloudy day and I wanted to see every detail (how I wish I had had my super duper reading glasses!).

I must say that all the different artifacts belonging to Lizzie that were given to her by her father (and especially the two locks of hair entwined) told me much about the special relationship between Bronson and his Psyche.

Don’t miss this great exhibit!

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The Louisa May Alcott Society celebrates their tenth anniversary with a visit from “Louisa!”

On a cool and cloudy day a group of dedicated teachers, writers, academics and hard-core fans gathered together at ground zero to celebrate the love of an author who had, in one way or another, transformed their lives.

Thus was the gathering of the Louisa May Alcott Society as we celebrated ten years as an official organization.

columbine-640Greeted at the door of Orchard House by sweet lilacs and lovely columbines, the society entered the home where they encountered “Louisa May Alcott,” eager to take the group of 20+ on a special tour of her home.

In the parlor

We sat on the floor of the parlor as “Louisa” lovingly described her home and family, sharing delicious details of the wedding of Anna and John Pratt in that very parlor, the theatrics put on in the adjoining dining room (complete with mad dashes upstairs for quick costume changes) and her impressions of the George Healy portrait hanging there (“I looked like a relic from the Boston fire!” she bemoaned).

Leaning Orchard House

louisa and friends3-640“Louisa” described her father’s rather unique renovations and expansion of Orchard House (“which caused it to lean”) with the addition of the tenant house creating the dining room, kitchen and addition bed chamber above which housed May.


I enjoyed her description of the famous mood pillow, empathizing fully with “Louisa’s” desire not to be disturbed when lost in the vortex of creativity.

We gazed at May’s paintings in each of the rooms, sighed over Lizzie’s piano and appreciated Abba’s fine china before heading upstairs to the room where Little Women had been written.

Where Little Women was written

One can never enter that room without pausing over the small desk where the inkstand (a lovely glass holder with quill pen positioned over it) and pages from Little Women lay. Draped over the bed was Anna’s lovely gray wedding dress. Artifacts and tools of Louisa’s needlework were displayed on a table nearby.

May’s training

louisa and friends2-640May’s bed chamber produces the same level of awe. As we gazed at her drawings on the wall, “Louisa” described how her sister’s artistic training in Europe caused her to improve by leaps and bounds. Apparently in Europe May was exposed to training that would have been denied her in America, including the study of cadavers (which greatly improved her ability at portraiture). It was this level of training that transformed May into a serious artist. “Louisa” went on to brag how her sister was commissioned to copy the Turners which secured her position in the professional art world.

Special family heirlooms

Entering the master chamber, we were treated to a close-up view of the nursery where Johnny and Freddy Pratt had stayed after their father passed away. Here I found myself with a lump in my throat as I gazed at the dolly that Lizzie had made with the face painted by May. It took all of my strength not to touch that doll.

“Louisa” pointed out the quilt on the master bed made by her mother; that evoked a collective gasp of appreciation.

The magic never ends

We ended the tour in Bronson’s study and May’s art studio where “Louisa” noted with confusion the “chairs all set up” and the “strange device” (TV and DVD player) that filled the studio. What was May up to now?

Orchard House never fails to produce its magic and we all fell under the spell.

Happy anniversary!

The get-together culminated with champagne toasts, sweets, cheese and crackers and fresh fruit, stimulating conversation and vows to continue growing the society.

Judging from the attendance and the enthusiasm, I would say the Society is strong, growing and healthy. It is an honor to be a part of such a wonderful group.

LMA society2-640


Anyone serious about Louisa can join; dues are only $10 per year. We communicate by email on a regular basis and the website, provides resources.

To members of the society: you have helped me to better understand why I am so passionate about Louisa May Alcott. Even yesterday I discovered new reasons to continue my study and build my appreciation of this fascinating woman.

Come and join us!

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What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

Click to Tweet & ShareWhat would May’s life have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

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Concord in Autumn: walking the path Louisa walked

Concord, home to Louisa May Alcott. I have been a student of Louisa on and off, for most of my life. Back in August of 2010 I decided to commit myself to study and share my reflections with you. I have so enjoyed all the book discussions and your wonderful comments about our favorite author.

Autumn at its peak in front of the Concord Free Public Library

I have always visited Concord in autumn. Since I’ve immersed my life into Louisa’s, the visits have taken on a mystical quality, most especially in autumn. The colorful falling leaves, brilliant sunshine and crisp air make Louisa more alive to me than ever.

The Concord Free Public Library

Now that I’ve discovered that much of what is at Houghton Library at Harvard University is also available at the Concord Free Public Library through an extensive microfilm collection, I can easily access all I need to research this blog and a future book I wish to write. Concord is only 45 minutes away from home, and also close enough to where I work in Wellesley that I can go there after work to do research.

So today I spent a couple of hours reading Anna’s diary from 1840 (which I will be writing on once I finish it) and then decided to walk the path Louisa and her family walked so many times, from downtown Concord to Orchard House.

Continuing on to Orchard House

I took many pictures which I’m happy to share with you in this slide show.

Being able to read the words of family members in their own handwriting really adds to the mystical connection I feel with the Alcotts.

I am indeed very blessed! I look forward to sharing with you in the future what I’ve discovered from my reading.

In the meantime, enjoy your virtual walk from downtown Concord to Orchard House on a crisp and beautiful October day.

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My 3 days with Louisa (conclusion): Windows into the past, and a lasting memento

When I requested Lizzie’s diary at Houghton Library, I received a thick, bound volume full of many treasures.

Some of those treasures included Anna’s childhood diaries.

Anna is an engaging writer

While Lizzie’s writings read more like lists, Anna’s read like little stories.

Anna was very faithful about keeping her journal and lamented if she missed a day. Sometimes she missed several, and she’d lament about that.

Scenes from her past

What particularly struck me were the scenes she described, opening little windows into the past. Here she describes a walk with Lizzie:

from Boston, Wednesday, October 23, 1839 – “I had a pleasant walk on the Common with Elizabeth and the Rufoellis this morning We played hide behind the trees. The leaves were fallen, and were brown and yellow.” (MS Am 1130.9 (24), Alcott Pratt collection, Houghton Library).

Lively descriptions

This description of a trip from Boston to Scituate on the stage was colorful:

from Scituate to Boston, Wednesday, Septmber 28, 1838 – “The stage came for us this morning and took us and all our baggage. There were a good many passengers inside and on the top. We saw some Indian women at Hingham near where the Steam Boat stops. They had long hair and loose gowns and rings in their ears. One of them was making a basket. It was pleasant sailing in the steam boat. I was glad when we got to our house in Boston, and saw the Russells and the Duttons. Everything seemed strange to me about the house. We played in the garret with Elizabeth and Mary Russell, as we used to before we went to Scituate.” (Ibid)

Visits with the relatives

Living in Boston, there were many visits with Grandfather May, Uncle Samuel May, cousin Louisa Greenwood and Aunt Lucretia. Here she describes a picnic the family attended:

from Scituate, Thursday, September 12, 1838 “We went to a Pic Nic on Afranipit this afternoon, Father, mother, Uncle Samuel, Aunt Lucretia and Louisa went with me, It was four or five miles. The tables were in a grove near the road, and spread with cakes, apples, peaches, melons, raisins and other good things, I liked the music. Uncle Samuel made a short speech to the people. They stood still to hear him. In the evening we played and told stories at Uncle Samuel’s. We came home in the dark. Father carried Elizabeth in his arms.”(Ibid)

Fodder for stories

It occurred to me as a writer that Anna’s stories and descriptions set up great scenes. I could definitely see a children’s writer especially making good use of these sources.

Handwriting tells its own story

Anna’s handwriting, like Lizzie’s, is very neat and consistent. Lizzie’s letters are upright while Anna’s slant; her handwriting flows more easily than Lizzie’s.

Anna’s journals are beckoning me back for further study.

A final note

My three days with Louisa May Alcott were a dream come true. The sense of fellowship created during those conversations at Orchard House was tremendously satisfying and the visit to Houghton was the perfect follow-up. I look forward to my vacation at Christmastime to visit the library again, and to see Orchard House adorned for the holidays.

A lasting memento

I have to share with you my thrilling memento from my days with Louisa: a personal autograph in my copy of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father from John Matteson. He is aware of the work done here at Louisa May Alcott is My Passion and offered a wonderful word of encouragement.

You can imagine it took a while for my feet to touch the ground after reading this: :-)

Click to Tweet & Share: My 3 days with Louisa (conclusion): Windows into the past, and a lasting memento

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Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

A trip to a warehouse bookstore in the middle of nowhere produced a great find! I had just about given up the hope of finding something interesting until this book caught my eye:  Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985, edited by Anne M. Lyell.

What is so significant about Nonquitt? This is where Louisa May Alcott spent her summers in the last years of her life. This book was such a great find because of new pictures of Louisa, her nephews, the cottage she rented and the summer home she eventually purchased.

The book devoted a short chapter (chapter 9, pages 94-97 – all references come from these pages unless otherwise noted.) to Louisa with anecdotal stories of her summers in the southeastern Massachusetts seacoast town near New Bedford.

What brought Louisa May Alcott to Nonquitt?

Recollections from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian suggest that Louisa came to visit the family and fell in love with Nonquitt. He writes:

“I was spending a summer at Nonquitt and she came to visit a friend. I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda. She was tall, rather rustic looking, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her checks somewhat thin, her big, black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony.”

Louisa was in her late forties at the time, obviously showing the ravages of her constant battle with her health. Remembering how vibrant she once was, it is sad to read how much her poor health had aged her.

Renting the first cottage

Louisa rented a house in 1881, sharing it with her niece, then 2-year-old Lulu (daughter of younger sister May who had passed away soon after childbirth). Her older sister Anna also summered at the cottage with her two teenage sons, Fred and John.

Anna’s memories

Anna writes, “I went to Nonquit[t] where Louisa had a cottage, a lovely green paradise which offers everything one can wish. Here I rested, and for fun got up theatricals (as usual), charades, etc., and grew quite young and festive, and enjoyed my lark so much I didn’t not want to come home . . . we [Louisa and Anna] take turns and so keep our boys there eight or ten weeks.” (pg. 141, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, e-book version).

Still in love with the theatre

Louisa, Anna and sons Fred and John took active part in the summer theatricals (Fred and John are shown in the above picture). Having never outgrown her love of the theatre, Louisa wrote and rewrote scripts and took on the jobs of coach, scenery designer and stage manager.

Summer paradise

Louisa rarely did any serious writing while summering in Nonquit. Mostly she took great pleasure in watching her little niece, Lulu:

“My poppet is a picture of health, vigor and delightful naughtiness. She runs wild in this fine place with some twenty other children to play with – nice babies, well-bred, and with pleasant mammas for me to gossip with.” (from a letter to a friend, 1882)

The Pied Piper of Nonquitt

An anecdote from the New Bedford newspaper speaks of Louisa often out walking with her red parasol in hand, followed by a group of children (she was, of course the famous “Miss Alcott” by this time). The newspaper goes on to say:

“There seemed to be a certain magnetism about her that drew the little ones to her, and it was a familiar sight to see the famous writer seated on her porch, or on a rock on the beach, a dozen or more children grouped around her, while she told children’s stories to them . . . Then when a demand would be made for the retelling of some one particular story, she would purposely change some character or some situation in it. The children would immediately correct her, and tell to her in their own way, the stories she had previously related to them.”

Always writing . . .

Even though Louisa came to vacation in Nonquitt, she could never stop writing. She contributed several short stories to the local paper, the Nonquitt Breeze.

Buying her piece of paradise

In 1883, Louisa purchased her own property,a cottage at the northeast corner of Narragansett and Central Avenue (presently called Old Wharf Road). She recorded in her journal on June 24:

“To Nonquitt with Lulu and K. and John (Pratt), Fixed my house, and enjoyed the rest and quiet immensely. Lulu wild with joy at the freedom . . .” In July she wrote, “Restful days in my little house, which is cool and quiet, and without the curse of a kitchen to spoil it . . .”

Louisa took her meals at the local hotel.

Failing health

By the end of 1885, Louisa was troubled by vertigo and rheumatism. It was then that she began to destroy letters and journals that she didn’t want prying eyes to see.

June of 1886 was her last visit to Nonquitt before poor health settled in. In a letter to Mary Mapes Dodge (friend, and editor of St. Nichoas Magazine where many of her books had been serialized), Louisa writes:

“Lu and I go to Nonquitt next week; and after a few days rest, I will fire up the old engine and see if it will run a short distance without a break-down.”

She fought against her ill health and finished her last book, Jo’s Boys.

The fate of Louisa’s cottage

In 1888, Louisa died and the nephew she adopted, John Pratt Alcott, inherited the Nonquitt house. In 1907 it was sold to John’s brother Fred who added on to the house.

In 1945 it was moved one block and is owned as of 1987 by Daniel Strohmeier.

The store where I found the book

So where did I find this book?

The store is known as the Book Bear in West Brookfield, MA. They are decidedly old-fashioned, not accepting credit cards and not doing email! They do have a website (click on the name) so you can get an idea of what they have.

I definitely will be visiting again soon!

Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985 is available online through Amazon and other outlets (the link leads to Amazon). I look forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book.

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