A Visit to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Louisa May Alcott's desk at Orchard House

Orchard House, best known as the home in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, is a literary site that’s a must-do for devotees of this classic American author. 

Located in Concord, Massachusetts (within an hour of Boston) the house opened its doors to the public in 1911, some twenty-three years after the deaths of Louisa May and her father, the noted philosopher and educator Amos Bronson Alcott.

The interior rooms of Orchard House can be seen via a docent-led tour lasting about an hour. The Alcott family comes to life through the tour guide’s narrative, and questions are cheerfully answered along the way.

How much of the story in Little Women is embodied in the rooms of the house and the renowned family that inhabited it? This classic has been beloved for generations, ever since its publication in 1868. The semi-autobiographical portrait of the March family did indeed draw a great deal of inspiration from the Alcott’s Orchard House years.

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Alcott Orchard House

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The Alcotts and the March family

The sister who was central to the tale, Jo March, was Louisa’s alter ego. Restless, quick-tempered, and tomboyish (or, one can argue, male-identified), Jo is an aspiring writer and the family’s creative ringleader, much as Louisa was.

Meg, the most conventional sister, was modeled on Anna, the eldest Alcott sister; Beth, whose premature death broke hearts was based on Elizabeth, whose actual death had a profound effect on Louisa; and the youngest, May, was the inspiration for Amy, who became an even more accomplished artist than her literary counterpart (known after marriage as May Alcott Nieriker).

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May Alcott Nieriker Orchard House watercolor before 1879

Orchard House watercolor by May Alcott Nieriker, about 1879

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The March sisters

It was surprising to learn that when May gave art lessons in Orchard House after her tours of Europe (where her art studies were funded by Louisa), she was the first instructor of the young Daniel Chester French, whose career as a  sculptor became legion, and included the creation of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

The Alcott sisters, like the March girls, called their patient and wise mother Marmee. But Little Women only hints at the extent to which the Alcotts were involved with social reforms — abolition, education, women’s rights, and suffrage for freed slaves as well as women.

 

Bronson Alcott

Mr. March, the family patriarch, isn’t quite the dreamer as was Amos Bronson Alcott. His ideas were lofty and social views incredibly progressive, but he struggled to make a living for the family.

Louisa took up the mantle in her teens, earning money by doing whatever work was open to a woman of her time — sewing, teaching, acting, and finally, of course, writing. Where Bronson Alcott failed, she succeeded in becoming the breadwinner of the family.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — a timeless classic

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Little Women

To help support her family, Louisa began her writing career by gothic thrillers (then called “blood and thunder tales”) under various pseudonyms. These, as it turned out, were what she preferred to write. Little Women was hammered out in six weeks at the desk in her bedroom in Orchard House; its immediate success surprised both the author and her publisher.

Louisa admitted that the book read better than she expected once she saw the galleys, but dismissed the books that came after as “moral pap for the young.” 

So when we see Louisa’s desk in the room where she slept, the romantic notion of the woman writer at her desk is tempered by the knowledge that she considered herself a workhorse, doing what she felt she needed to do for the family’s survival. She not only needed to make money, but liked doing so as well.

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Louisa May Alcott at her desk at Orchard House

Louisa May Alcott at her desk in Orchard House

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Orchard House Tour

The Orchard House tour begins in the modest but cheery kitchen. As a longtime vegan myself, I was delighted to learn that Bronson Alcott was a devoted ethical vegan (though the term wasn’t yet coined at the time), believing that no animals should be oppressed and exploited.

We then wind through the dining room and modest parlor, where the March family entertained their esteemed neighbors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was an important mentor for Louisa) and Henry David Thoreau, and where Anna’s wedding to John Pratt took place.

The tour continues upstairs to the bedrooms May’s original drawings on doors and window frames have been preserved, and the tiny nursery that was added for Anna’s sons after her husband passed away. The tour ends back down the stairs in Bronson Alcott’s study, lined with many books that were actually in his collection.

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Bronson Alcott in his study at Orchard House

Bronson Alcott in his study at Orchard House

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Authentic feel

Unlike other historic house tours where rooms, especially bedrooms, are roped off, all the rooms can be entered, which gives a greater sense of intimacy. Objects, furnishings, and pictures can be observed at close range.

The house has an authentic feel because most of what’s in Orchard House today really did belong to the Alcotts. Louisa, who endured great struggles along with her successes, stands at the helm of this family and their legacy. 

Anyone who loves Little Women and Louisa May Alcott’s many other works will enjoy this glimpse into her life and that of the family she so loved.

 

Visitor information

The Orchard House web site has visiting hours and tours, which vary according to season. Make sure you get all the information before planning your visit!

If you have some extra time and energy, Louisa May Alcott is buried in the Alcott family plot at nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in a section called Authors’ Ridge.  It’s somewhat of a trek from the road, but a must-do for die-hard fans. When in Concord, you owe it to yourself to visit the beautiful public liberary; if you have another half day to spare and want to visit the Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau sites, consult these posts on Books Tell You Why and Bookriot.

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Louisa May Alcott's grave

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