Orchard House: House of Little Women

Louisa May Alcott's home, Orchard House, in Concord, Mass. The home is best known for the setting of Alcott's novel "Little Women".

By Prithvi Tikhe
BU News Service

The bright sun filtered through pine and sycamore trees. Joggers and bikers made rare appearances on the two-lane Lexington Road. I went past farmland lined by rural homes before I arrived at Orchard House, home of the Alcotts in Concord, Massachusetts.

Orchard House is best known as the setting of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, a novel based on the lives of the author and her three sisters —Anna, Elizabeth, and May— that details their passage from childhood to womanhood. The book was the start of Louisa’s success as a writer of children’s stories. After moving 22 times in nearly 30 years, the Alcotts found their most permanent home at Orchard House, where they lived from 1857-1877.

I parked in front of the wooden fence lined with purple verbenas, white Gerber daisies and rose bushes. A short, middle-aged woman with snow-white hair and wearing a red volunteer shirt trimmed the bushes while a visitor rested on a wooden bench in the shade of a massive elm tree. I walked along the rocky path bordered by lavender hosta bushes. At the end was to a two-story brown house with a green door and a shingled roof. Lawns spanned on both sides of the path, covered with apple trees.

I was greeted by an amiable tour guide, Samantha deSuze, in a red polo shirt and khaki pants.

“The Town of Concord wanted to demolish the house, but Margaret Sidney, a writer and preservationist, along with Concord Woman’s Club raised money to preserve the house,” deSuze said. “In 1911, the Orchard House officially opened as a museum to the public.”

Although only two acres remain, Mr. Alcott originally purchased two houses set upon 12 acres of land that contained an orchard of 40 apple trees on Lexington Road in 1857 for $945.  He then moved the smaller tenant farmhouse and joined it to the rear of the larger manor house.

Mr. Alcott was an educator, social reformer and a transcendental philosopher who led a simple life believing God could be found through nature and by being one with the Earth. Mrs. Alcott was frequently frustrated by her husband’s inability to support his family but she believed in him and his ideals. She was a strong, independent woman and one of the first paid social workers in Boston.

Louisa remained unmarried and, after the success of “Little Women”, paid off her parent’s debt, sent her sister May to study art in Europe and fixed their Orchard House.  

deSuze pointed out that approximately 80 percent of the furnishings on display are owned by the Alcotts. As I walked from room to room, I was awestruck by how the house looked much like the family still lived here.

The tour started in the kitchen where the women prepared meals, preserved food from their garden and did laundry. Original features included a hot water boiler and a drying rack for clothes. deSuze said Mrs. Alcott was so proud of the $100 soapstone sink Louisa purchased for her that she mentioned it to every guest who came to the house. The Alcotts had running water installed in the mid-1870s  but their well is still visible via a trap door in the kitchen floor.  

Next, was the dining room where Mrs. Alcott’s original family china, portraits of Elizabeth and Louisa, and paintings done by May were displayed with other family furnishings. The most memorable was Elizabeth’s melodeon—a small reed organ—in the dining room.

The Alcott sisters also used the dining room as their stage, performing theatricals for neighbors and friends who assembled in the adjoining parlor. The sisters would come down the stairs and act out Louisa’s plays, which she would direct, while May’s scenery stood behind them and Elizabeth played background music.

The arched niches in the formal parlor were built by Mr. Alcott to display busts of his favorite philosophers, Socrates and Plato. Original portraits of the parents and watercolors painted by May enlivened the room. There was even May’s pen and ink drawing of Moses on the fireboard.

I climbed up a steep flight of creaking, hardwood stairs and upon reaching the landing, made an immediate right into Louisa’s chamber. deSuze shared the anecdote of the “pillow of Louisa” lying on the couch. She said if the pillow was laid flat, it meant Louisa was in a bad mood and the family should avoid her and vice-versa.

The original half-moon “shelf desk” Mr. Alcott built for Louisa still stood between the two front windows. It was there that she wrote the famous “Little Women” in 1868.

On the desk was a page of Louisa’s writing. I noticed that the handwriting was neat, but illegible. 

“Louisa wrote that piece with her left hand,” deSuze said, explaining that Louisa had contracted typhoid pneumonia while serving as a nurse in the Civil War. “She had lost her ability to write with her right hand as her thumb and index finger were affected by mercury poisoning from the calomel medication.”

It was a close glimpse into the life of a great American writer. I felt that Louisa’s room must have been a haven where she could escape her often turbulent emotions, active imagination and serious preoccupation with her family’s welfare to find the needed solitude and freedom to write.

deSuze pointed out an original panel of calla lilies and nasturtiums beside Louisa’s writing desk, a baby owl on the mantel and an owl oil painting. She said that May had painted and created them for Louisa while she was recovering from the pneumonia.

Adjacent to Louisa’s chamber, May’s blue and gray bedroom contained sketches of mythological and biblical figures on the woodwork, walls, doors, wallpaper, and bracketed shelves holding flower vases. I asked why she drew on the window trims. 

“The room was too dark for an artist and Mr. Alcott tried to arch the ceilings to create more light,” deSuze said, looking to the vaulted ceiling. “But there still wasn’t enough light and so May drew on the trims where there was more sunlight, especially in the mornings.”

I strolled across the hall into the master bedroom. It reflected Mrs. Alcott’s taste and contained many of her possessions. Handmade quilts and family photographs of her brother, Samuel May, and her great-great-grandfather, Samuel Sewell, a presiding judge of the Salem witch trials were among the items. May’s copies of Joseph Turner’s landscapes adorned the walls leading to the nursery.

In Mr. Alcott’s study, books filled the shelves and the walls held images of friends and sources of inspiration: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and his own mother, Anna Bronson Alcott. A copy of Mr. Alcott’s annual paycheck for $100 dated Feb. 2, 1864, which he received as the Superintendent of Concord School, was on the mantle. 

As I walked out to the west side of the property, I saw a rustic log cabin. It was the Concord School of Philosophy, a summer adult education series created by Mr. Alcott in 1880.

The volunteer was now pulling out weeds in the scorching heat. I chatted with her about the Alcott garden.

She explained that each sister had a quarter of the garden to plant whatever they wanted. “Their tastes differed as much as their characters,” she said. “Anna had roses. Louisa’s bed was never alike two seasons as she liked to experiment. Beth had old-fashioned fragrant flowers and May had honeysuckle and morning-glories.”

My last stop was Author’s Ridge, where the graves of Mr. Alcott, Emerson, Daniel Chester French, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau and their families rest in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Louisa is buried next to her parents and sisters in the Alcott plot. Her headstone is marked by a veteran’s medal and an American flag.

A family approached the grave and a young girl placed a white daisy and a pencil upon it. She pointed at the grave.

“Mom, Louisa died the same year as her father,” she said. 

Louisa died two days after her father in March of 1888. She was 55.

 

Louisa, who is called the “children’s friend,” died young, but her books and legacy continue to live on. As I left the cemetery, I gazed at the lavender hosta bushes along the roadside and thought of the family. I was captivated by Orchard House, where the Alcotts built a fortress of love, duty and pride.

 

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