Origin of the P.C. and the P.O. from Little Women — it started earlier than you think.

katherine-anthonyResearch has a way of taking you places you never thought to go. I recently rereaded a 1937 biography of Louisa May Alcott by Katherine Anthony (of which I will write about in a future post) and started to wonder why so much came out about the Alcott family that year.

An era of the Alcotts

Odell Shepherd’s book on Bronson Alcott was also published in 1937. It then occurred to me that both books came out just before the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Louisa and Bronson, who died only a few days apart from each other after Bronson mysteriously invited Louisa to follow him “up” during their last visit together.

Happy Birthday

That led me to look again at the various artifacts I saw at The Wayside in Concord (specifically the North Bridge Center) where there were several newspaper accounts dating from the same period. The centenary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth was celebrated in Concord in 1932:

from the The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

from the The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

A very special guest

And in 1935 when the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association gathered for its annual meeting, they announced the visit during that year of a particular VIP:

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Concord Journal, December 5, 1935, from The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

Louisa as micro-journalist

And, in the midst of these newspaper clippings, I discover a small article which sheds light on the origins of the Pickwick Portfolio from Little Women (aka, The Olive Leaf in real life):

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

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To my delight and surprise, the book referenced, Lilliputian Newspapers by James D. Henderson, was available for download from archive.org. Thus I was able to read firsthand about the origins of “The P.C. and the P.O.”

Creating a diversion

Those who have familiarized themselves with Louisa’s life recall the time in Boston when the sisters were in their teens and twenties when the family lived in acute poverty. To keep her family in good cheer, Louisa created a newspaper in 1849 (when she was seventeen) called The Olive Leaf, in honor of a favorite periodical, The Olive Branch. There were several issues, all available at the Houghton Library at Harvard University — the first issue is replicated in its entirety in Chapter 10 of Little Women.  Each sister took the role of a Dickensian character from The Pickwick Papers:

  • Anna/Meg as Samuel Pickwick
  • Louisa/Jo as Augustus Snodgrass
  • Lizzie/Beth as Tracey Tubman
  • May/Amy as Nathaniel Winkle.

Earlier origin

In Lilliputian Newspapers, James D. Henderson reveals that in fact, Louisa created the newspaper when she was twelve in 1844. Henderson writes, “The Pickwick was a manuscript newspaper, in size 10 and 8 inches, and comprised four pages, two columns to a page, entirely written by hand.” (pg. 60, Lilliputian Newspapers). Two issues were published between 1844 and 1845 when the family lived at Still River and Concord. Louisa wrote the early issues but when it changed to The Olive Leaf, all four sisters contributed.

Henderson noted the Weekly Report of their behavior (from “very good” to “good” to “middling” to “bad”) and this invitation:

“THE DUSTPAN SOCIETY will meet on Wednesday next, and parade in the upper story of the Club House. All members to appear in uniform, and shoulder their brooms at nine precisely.” (Ibid, pgs. 62-63)

Ode to Marmee

If you are lucky enough to see or obtain a copy of Lilliputian Newspapers, you will see a reproduction of the original copy of The Pickwick, found in the pocket of the inside of the back cover. The reproduction was made possible by Miss Beatrice Gunn, formerly of the Youth’s Companion, a magazine to which Louisa often contributed. The Concord Journal reprinted the poem featured in the “Poet’s Corner:”

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

James Henderson’s book was published in 1936. Lots of good stuff during the 1930’s. I look forward to sharing with you soon about Katherine Anthony’s biography which is surprisingly frank and objective.

 

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15 thoughts on “Origin of the P.C. and the P.O. from Little Women — it started earlier than you think.

  1. Elizabeth K. Hilprecht says:

    How wonderful! I’m always so happy to read these posts and so glad to know Katherine Anthony has written something that I’ll want to read. As to the Pickwick Portfolio, I don’t think movie casters read it very well when hiring actresses to play Jo, because other than Katharine Hepburn, all the actresses are from 5′ (June Allyson) to 5’3″ (Winona Ryder.) Amazing how many short women grab for that part like bridesmaids for the bouquet. According to Eve LaPlante, Louisa was 5’6″ and had brown eyes, according to photographs and verbal accounts in the family. May was said to be the tallest, some thought 5’9″ but that isn’t to be proven so far. Anyhow, I find all these tidbits endlessly interesting. Please keep them coming! God bless you, from Elizabeth.

  2. Kate P says:

    I am very curious to hear about the Katherine Anthony biography!

  3. Thank you for sharing this post! How fascinating to know of the Pickwick’s origins, and that Louisa had been a young journalist from the beginning! I love that she and her sisters started the Pickwick. This really resonates with me – a group of friends and I restarted our school newspaper when we were around 13-14, it was such great fun. Really appreciate the depth of your research and sharing.

  4. Esther says:

    what fun to find such a treasure 🙂 Louisa was a real writing talent!

  5. Laurie Welch says:

    It is so interesting to see all the different kinds of writing LMA did, from novels to stories to newspapers!

    • susanwbailey says:

      She was so versatile! The one thing she said she could not do was write biography — she had to write from her imagination.

      I’m the opposite — I can write about factual stuff and even do memoir but I can’t write fiction. I wish I could but I don’t actually read that much fiction. Someday when I emerge from the research rabbit hole I will have to treat myself to more fiction. 🙂

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