15 May 2010

Orchard House: home of the Alcotts

Louisa May Alcott, age 20
Visiting historic houses helps you envision your ancestors in the appropriate time and place.

In 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) purchased a home in Concord, Massachusetts, for $950. It was, his wife Abigail (May) Alcott (1800-1877) exclaimed, “a house fit for pigs and apple orchards.” The 12-acre lot actually contained two houses, dating from 1650 and 1730, which Bronson combined into one big structure he called Orchard House.

Fortunately, Bronson Alcott was handy with a hammer and inventive in his house plans. The kitchen was located over the well in the basement. Closets had windows in them for extra light. Niches in the walls created interesting space for sculptures. Bookcases and shelves were scattered about. And at a half-moon desk Bronson built between two windows in an upstairs bedroom, his daughter Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote Little Women.

Published in two parts in 1868-1869, this semi-autobiographical novel tells the stories of four teenaged sisters during the Civil War. Strolling through Orchard House is like walking through scenes from the well-beloved children’s book. You can picture Jo directing her melodramatic plays or quiet, shy Beth playing the piano in the parlor. You can imagine the March sisters running across the wide floorboards while playing one of their games of make believe.

Orchard House (2013) by victorgrigas
But Orchard House is much more than the setting of Louisa’s novel. The Alcott family came to Concord at the request of Transcendentalist philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who lived down the street from Orchard House. Emerson admired Bronson’s ideas of educational reform and dreams of a Utopian society.
So Louisa borrowed books from Emerson’s library. She took long walks with naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). She played with the children of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). These bigger-than-life characters were part of Louisa’s everyday circle. Perhaps it’s no surprise that by age 15, Louisa was publishing poems and magazine stories to supplement the family income.

Little Women’s Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy were certainly more conventional and more ladylike than the actual Alcott sisters (Louisa, Anna, Lizzie and May). Anna performed plays at public venues, not just in the parlor. May drew sketches of visitors and famous paintings on the walls and woodwork of Orchard House. To make money, she taught art classes and later showed some of her paintings in the Paris Salon. As for Louisa, “An old maid, that's what I'm to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and 20 years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps.”

Many furnishings and personal possessions of the Alcotts are on display at the Orchard House, where the Alcotts called home from 1857-1877. Located at 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, it’s open for guided tours year-round.

Much of the childhood Louisa described in Little Women, however, happened in the neighboring house, which is now known as Wayside: Home of the Authors. The Alcotts lived there from 1845 to 1852 before selling it to Hawthorne. Since he totally renovated the building and added a Tower Study addition, the Wayside no longer resembles the Alcotts’ home. Located at 455 Lexington Road in Concord, the Wayside offers guided tours of the house May through October.

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