Louisa’s first letter in honor of her baby sister – original handwritten letter from the Houghton Library

I visited the Houghton Library in mid July and was greeted with the most wonderful surprise: Houghton is now granting permission to post the actual handwritten letters from the Alcott family!

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to share these letters with you! I have photographed probably over a hundred pages of letters (mostly of other family members; I plan on going through Louisa’s at a later date).

It seems most appropriate to begin by posting (possibly) Louisa’s very first letter, along with Anna and Lizzie, in honor of the birth of their new baby sister Abbie May. Here is the letter:

Letter from Anna, Louisa and Lizzie Alcott to their mother Abba in honor of their sister Abbie May's birth.
Letter from Anna, Louisa and Lizzie Alcott to their mother Abba in honor of their sister Abbie May’s birth.

And here is the transcription provided by the library:

anna, louisa, lizzie to abba july 1840

More to come in future posts. We are all very grateful to the Houghton Library for the privilege of posting these letters. Seeing the actual handwriting makes a real difference!

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38 Replies to “Louisa’s first letter in honor of her baby sister – original handwritten letter from the Houghton Library”

    1. I know, I thought that was cute. The scrawls by the two little girls touched my heart, makes them real people. That’s the beauty of reading the handwriting and actually touching the paper – suddenly these icons become like your great grandmother or great great aunt or something. To think that students today are not learning cursive is so incredibly short-sighted. Honestly, they’ll have to teach history majors in college and grad school how to write and read cursive!

      I can’t wait to show Abba’s scrawl! 😉

      1. In a recent history class, we had to learn how to read the funny writing they did before the printing press was invented in England, which transferred over in a funny way to the way the printing press wrote letters. (It originally tried to replicated handwriting, in a way.) The original printing presses in England often lacked letters, so they’d just replace a letter with the wrong letter or a symbol or just skip the letter. S often appears like f in transcripts, which makes transferring them to online copies a difficult and slow process. My point is only that we aren’t that far gone — we can still read cursive. 😛 We have to learn to read around all sorts of illegible scribbling in old documents. (I’m only a history minor. Just sharing.) 🙂

      2. Huh, I never knew that about the printing press, very interesting! I was a typesetter when I began my career and it was when it had just become computerized so I’ve always been interested in that sort of thing. You have to learn the pattern of a person’s handwriting plus whatever quirks were present in the day (like words that end in two s’s – the first s looks like an f!). That stuff I posted about Thoreau the other day – there’s a person who has been reading his scrawl for 20 years – now that’s expertise! I’m getting better at Abba’s writing – if she writes in a straight line I can make out about 75-80% of it. Her letters are gold mines but boy do you have to work at it to get the gold! Bronson’s changes all the time – sometimes he tries to be artistic and grand, and other times, it’s just scrawl. 🙂

  1. It must have been so thrilling to touch the letter, what a wonderful experience. I am having difficulty reading the trascription, do you have another view of it?

    1. I don’t but here’s what it says:

      The scribbling at the top says: Louisa Alcott and her two sisters to their mother on the birth of their sister Abba – July 1840. Possibly the earliest intact letter of Louisa, 8 years old.

      Letters:

      Dear Mother,
      We all wish much to see you and little Baby. I think Father makes a very good cook; he has made several new dishes. Last night he gave us for supper some bread toasted which we dipped in water a little warmed; and he cut it in slices like bread of communion at church. It was very nice, I thought. After reading us a Fable, he told us of a dream of Flying Cherubs, which he made up in his mind. It was a beautiful picture of Love and Goodness, and taught us what children we should be. We were glad to get your letter. I hope Grandfather is a good deal better, and will get well soon. Louisa wants room, and so I send no more words, but love.
      Anna

      Dearest Mother.
      I hope you will come home soon. I am glad Grandpa is better. I want to see you and baby.
      Louisa

      Come home quick.
      I want to see baby.
      Lizzy

    1. It gets even prettier as she grows up. Anna is the family secretary – her letters are the best source of information because she reports everything and you can actually read the handwriting.

      1. That would be so cool. You would not believe how exhausting it is to the eyes to read that stuff. I can only do about 5 hours at a stretch. I don’t leave to eat or anything because it just gets so intense.

      2. Oh, I believe it! I just did a project at my university’s Special Collections Library & have spent hours poring through stuff, over many consecutive days. Not nearly as interesting as the Alcott letters!! But yes — quite intense and exhausting and excellent.

      3. Someday soon I will post some of Anna’s childhood diary. She was a very thoughtful and spiritual girl. True, she mirrored the father she revered but when you read what she writes, it sounds like she truly internalized it. One thing she was was truly kind. And her letters provide such great detail about what went on in the family from a pretty objective viewpoint (if such is possible).

      4. The real-life Anna Meg seems to be more kind and patient and perfect than the one described in Little Women, who was vain, wanted to rest and read, and think about the lovely dresses she would get with her salary, griped about her job, shrouded herself in her veil like a nun sick of the world, didn’t like nursing, struggled in the kitchen, struggled with her marriage, and so on.

      5. Well, as a child at least, Anna was more like Meg. While May got the shaft with Amy, I think Anna did too for she was more complex than Meg and suffered from a desire to do more but lacked the confidence. She had talent, both as an actress and a writer, but did not have that drive, that NEED to do it, like Louisa (who needed it for her own health and peace of mind as much as for money.)

  2. Wow, this is great! I find their letters fiercely interesting! Were the Alcotts Unitarians at this point? I ask because I didn’t think Unitarians had Communion. Leave it to Bronson to feed them bread and water for dinner! Thank you for doing all these posts, I really enjoy it since I have always lain awake thinking about the Alcotts..

    1. This is the interesting thing, re: the Unitarian angle. The Alcotts never belonged to any church formally although Abba’s family, I believe, was Unitarian. The Unitarian Church back then was quite different from the one today, not sure what they did about communion although it would make sense that they wouldn’t celebrate it, even as a symbolic meal. I recall from Anna’s childhood journal that they did sometimes attend church (and maybe even a Congregational church – I will have to look that up) – here’s a little passage from 1839, Sunday, December 22

      Anna’s experience in church: “I went to Mr. Barnard this morning. I wish he would preach about something that I could understand as father does when he talks with me about being good. After I came home, father read about God’s making the World, about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, eating the forbidden fruit, and being sent out of the garden, and about Cain’s slaying his brother Abel. Father explained it to me so that I might understand it. He wishes me to understand all I read. He talked with us about loving one another.”

      Obviously Anna had some exposure to communion whether it be through her father’s teachings or attending services.

      1. One biography I read in 1983 said that Bronson and his father joined the Episcopal Church, thereby “washing their hands of cold Calvinism”. Obviously Episcopalianism didn’t last very long with Bronson. Or did it? Another thing the same author wrote was that there was a strain of Portuguese in Abigail’s lineage, which was probably Sephardic Jewish, because there was absolutely no Catholicism in her background. Do you know about this? The family tree I saw sports nothing but English names. I think the author was Madelon Bedell, but I am not sure. I have not seen that book in 32 years. I got the copy at the library and it was fairly new with a plastic jacket with a crack in it.

      2. I did see that somewhere (maybe Eve LaPlante’s book?) about Louisa’s Jewish heritage from her mother. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bedell had that, she found so many interesting new things. With regards to Bronson and the Episcopal Church, John Matteson deals with that in Eden’s Outcasts. I would think the liturgical ritual would not have attracted Bronson; he preferred to be his own religion, if you know what I mean. 🙂

      1. In some ways it is hard to suppose that Louisa would be Unitarian, because she does “push the Christian agenda,” as one commentary wrote. In Little Men she does mention Jesus as the Savior, and in Little Women, Amy tries to copy The Madonna and Child, and “death canonized for them one saint”, and Beth’s favorite hymn is “Come Ye Disconsolate” (the last line is Earth hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal”), and there are so many references to Heaven, guardian angels (read rose poems, My Beth and In the Garrett)…the last thing I ever thought was that she was Unitarian. Perhaps Louisa was well studied on the Bible and religions of the day, formed her own opinions and was somewhat ecumenical in belief.

      2. First of all, THANK YOU for naming Beth’s favorite hymn, been wondering what that was for the longest time! I imagine that was probably what was sung at Lizzie’s funeral. I think the best thing I’ve read by Louisa about religion is her diatribe in Work, in the chapter, “Into the Mist.” It’s brilliant. She covers everything and with brutal honesty. From that I would have to suppose she did her homework, maybe even visited various churches in her own search for she truly was a pilgrim of faith and came to her own conclusions. There seems to be a love/hate relationship with Catholicism in particular – a fascination/repulsion of the ritual (perhaps her “feelings” towards the Irish fed the negative?). Yet in the end she always portrays it pretty well. Being a Catholic myself I am familiar with everything she talks about. The fact that the hero of “A Long Fatal Love-Chase” was a virtuous and chaste Catholic priest spoke volumes (although perhaps she thought it was too scandalous to allow him to act out on his feelings for Rosamond).

  3. A privilege to see this – much appreciated! But I had the same reaction as Elizabeth Hilprecht, above, and could not help imagining what Abba thought when she read of how he was feeding the girls while she was away. What a telling detail.

    1. I saw other things. I doubt they were eating too much more even when Abba was the cook because they were so poor and Bronson was entering his Fruitlands phase. I believe they had gone on the Graham diet by then if I’m not mistaken. What struck me was how he made that very simple meal sacred and meaningful to his children (especially Anna who totally got him and was old enough to appreciate the gesture). It reminded me of what I read about what he did at Fruitlands trying to make the plain meals there more palpable for the children by creating animal shapes out of the bread.

      Yes I know, from a practical standpoint denying his children real food was terrible. But Anna did glean something very special out of that bread he made.

      1. Fruitlands, Schmootlands! Nowadays the CPS would take those kids away from him. Can you imagine how he’d feel about THAT? I have to chuckle about the difference a century and a half makes.

  4. How exciting! Now you know why I love being an archivist. You never know what you’re going to find and seeing the original handwritten document is amazing! I just read that someone is trying to program computers to read handwriting now (OCR), which is completely stupid. I am quite adept at reading old handwriting and worked hard at it. Everyone’s writing is different and I don’t think a machine will ever be able to decode my illegible scrawl!

    1. It is stupid because it totally goes against the grain. Part of the experience is the deciphering–that’s what makes it so intimate. You get to know the person through their handwriting pattern.

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