Spotlight on Louisa May Alcott and Orchard House
Louisa May Alcott’s Bedchamber, where Little Women was written on the small half-moon desk between the two front windows in 1868. Images courtesy/used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.
To many Americans, Concord, Massachusetts, may be familiar as the site of the earliest battles of the American Revolution. By the 19th century, however, the town had become an artist colony of sorts, boasting writers Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and sculptor Daniel Chester French as residents. From 1858-1877, Concord was also home to the family of the noted transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, whose second-eldest daughter Louisa May was the author of more than 30 books, including the much beloved classic Little Women. Today, Orchard House, where Louisa May wrote and set her saga of the March family, is one of the oldest historic house-museums in the country.
The family home-turned-museum opened its doors to the public circa 1912 thanks to the intrepid efforts of some Louisa May Alcott fans who worked to keep it from the wrecking ball. Today, under the direction of Executive Director Jan Turnquist, Orchard House is open to the public daily year-round. The museum offers a host of educational activities for pre-schoolers to adults, including guided tours, craft workshops, and living history programs in which participants can “meet” members of the Alcott family. Each summer, Orchard House also hosts a themed series of adult lectures, which Turnquist explained is only fitting given that Bronson Alcott co-founded the Concord School of Philosophy, one of the nation’s first adult education programs.
Exterior of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Photo by John J. Althouse. Images courtesy/used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.
Turnquist has been part of the Orchard House team for more than three decades, starting as a part-time worker when she first moved to the area as a young mother-to-be. As an aficionado of biography and history, working at the museum was Turnquist’s dream job. “For someone who really loves biography, it’s like a dream to work in a place like [this] because I think the Alcotts are the best-documented family in America…. I love history and this is a window into history, this family, because they lived in such an interesting time. They knew so many famous people who wrote to them and wrote about them. They wrote about their friends. So you have this constant network of new information coming in about their lives and how things of the time were affecting their lives.”
The Alcotts were not the typical Victoria-era American family. Not only was the family involved in the abolitionist and suffragist movements, but they were fierce advocates of allowing their four daughters to pursue and develop their talents, which was decidedly not the norm at the time. “The fact that [Louisa May] had parents who encouraged [her writing] was extraordinary because there were actually physicians in that era who would say, ‘Writing is brain work, and brain work will destroy a woman’s health and should not be permitted.’” Fortunately for Louisa May's many readers, her parents didn’t hew to conventional advice. “Her father went against that ‘wisdom’ by building a desk for his daughter,” said Turnquist. “Her mother gave her a pen with a little verse, ‘May this pen your muse inspire when wrapped into a poetic fire.’ So they were very very unusual in encouraging her, and I think that she was extremely grateful for that encouragement because that really did allow her to become more and more who she really was. She didn’t have to repress her personality.”
It's not surprising that Louisa May, who never married, was herself quite an unusual woman for the time. Like most 19th-century women, she participated in all the usual household activities---helping to grow the family’s food, cooking, laundry. Still, she didn’t let her daily chores get in the way of her writing. According to Turnquist, “[W]hile she was cooking and washing up dishes and washing clothes and ironing and all that sort of thing and making beds and all the housekeeping, she was plotting stories, planning them in her head. Then when she got a chance to sit down, she would write as fast as she could, and she would be in what she called a 'vortex' and just get it all down on paper.” Turnquist added that the author also had a great sense of humor and loved athletics, particularly running. “All those things you see Jo March doing in Little Women, Louisa also did,” said Turnquist.
It’s fitting that the home of such an unusual family would become an equally unusual museum. One unique aspect of the house is its age. It’s more than 300 years old, making it one of the few intact remnants of the nation’s colonial era. Turnquist commented, “It was very old when the Redcoats came marching through….In 1857 when Bronson Alcott bought it, it was in such horrible condition that it was completely expected to be torn down. “In fact, added Turnquist, it took a full year of renovations---with the help of Thoreau---before the newly christened Orchard House was ready for habitation. In 2000, Orchard House garnered a Save America’s Treasure’s grant for a new round of renovations to help extend the life of the house into the 21st century. “We spent 1.5 million dollars on something no one will ever see,” said Turnquist, “just to build a foundation and make that house stable.”
Perhaps the most unique quality of Orchard House is that it’s not just a recreation of the Alcotts’ home. Turnquist explained, “Almost everything you see in the house when you walk through was owned by the Alcotts and is in the position they had it.” This veracity, in part, explains the museum’s popularity with both local and international visitors. Orchard House has also been known to attract its share of high-profile visitors, such as photographer Annie Leibovitz who included several images shot at the museum in her 2011 book Pilgrimage. (Orchard House is partnering with Concord Museum of Art to present the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s exhibition of Leibovitz’s photographs from the book this summer.)
Turnquist acknowledged that while it’s possible to learn a wealth of factual details about Louisa May Alcott and her family from books or the Internet, actually seeing Louisa May’s writing desk and other family artifacts ineffably deepens one’s experience of the author. “People come as if it’s a pilgrimage, and one thing that I hear from people a lot is that they long for something real and tangible…. [Books and films] tap into the imagination, which is fantastic. But there’s something very different about physically standing in the exact spot where someone else---especially someone you’re trying to understand---where someone else stood, where they wrote, where they slept, and looking at their belongings. There’s something so powerful about that.”