The Six: Six Things You Didn’t Know About Louisa May Alcott

1. She lived within walking distance of Ralph Waldo Emerson… and had a lot of company.

When Louisa was 8, she and her family moved into a house nearby Emerson’s cottage in Concord. Over the course of her life, Louisa would do a fair share of moving, but it seemed that most of her houses had names, and this particular cottage was known as Dove Cottage or Concordia Cottage. There, Louisa wrote short plays for her family to perform in the kitchen for their friends.

But it wasn’t just Emerson that Louisa grew up with. Massachusetts was party central for a host big intellectual names that still endure today. Louisa went on nature walks with Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was a family friend who shared part of the responsibility of educating Louisa, though the bulk of that fell to her father. Nathaniel Hawthorne, too, kept company with Louisa and her family, and later moved into The Wayside, a home that the Alcotts had previously owned.

All four — Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne — are buried together on Author’s Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow (yes!) Cemetery.

2. She was a vegetarian.

Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that with so many active minds gathered together, they’d get the urge to start a commune. Still, if you sit down and think about it, the Alcotts sound like they’d fit in nicely with American society’s current trend toward vegetarianism and low-impact living. In any case, that’s the kind of family Louisa grew up with.

Her father, along with Charles Lane, founded Fruitlands in the 1840s with the intention of escaping the evils of the world — especially money-based economy — “through pure living and high thinking”. They would eat no eggs or meat. Milk, considered property of the cow, was off limits. They wore only linen clothing, since wool came from sheep and cotton was produced with the labor of people enslaved at the time.

The experiment, however, went quickly downhill. After only about a half year, the project was abandoned, and Louisa followed her family to their next charming and name-bearing abode — “The Hillside” that would later become Hawthorne’s The Wayside.

3. Her father made journal keeping compulsory for the entire family.

Many activities were shared by the entire Alcott family. They moved together, studied transcendentalism and other social movements together, participated in a vegetarian lifestyle together, and kept their required journals together from the moment they were able to start writing. By the time Bronson Alcott reached the age of 82, his own journal had 61 volumes. Louisa’s mother, Abba, was allowed to read her journals and often left small notes filled with questions or encouragement. Louisa’s journal held charming tidbits such as:

“If only I kept all the promises I make, I should be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so I am very bad.”

“My quick tongue is always getting me into trouble, and my moodiness makes it hard to be cheerful when I think how poor we are, how much worry it is to live, and how many things I long to do I never can.”

4. She was a nurse for the army during the Civil War, and may have died because of it.

Louisa left her family to work as a nurse in Washington D.C. from 1862 to 1863. She recorded the daily events both in her journals and in the dramaticized log of her experience (also her first successful book) Hospital Sketches, published in 1863. Her family was consistently in debt before her success with Little Women, so it was lucky that a job she took to help her family out resulted in money in more than one way.

What was not so lucky, however, was the fact that while working, Louisa contracted typhoid and was treated with calomel, also known as mercurous chloride, and supposedly lived with the treatment’s negative effect on her health until her death, less than two days after her father’s death, in 1888. Though the mercury poisoning was not the direct cause of her death, as had been claimed for a long time, recent reviews of her symptoms still cite the mercury as having devastating effects on her immune system.

5. She was the first woman registered to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

Spurred by the constant intellectual dialogue encouraged around her family’s dinner table, Louisa was active in many civil rights movements, including abolitionism, feminism, and the suffrage movement. Though Margaret Fuller, another of her family’s high profile friends and the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College, was one of Louisa’s sisters in arms, undoubtedly the strongest influence came from Louisa’s mother, who said she would live to vote in the polls if her daughters had to carry her.

In her mother’s spirit, Louisa went to cast her ballot on March 29th, 1880 — almost this very day, 133 years ago — to vote in the school committee elections, a right which had been granted to women in Massachusetts the year before. She was accompanied by nineteen other women, but has gone down in history as the very first.

6. She learned her first letters through charades.

Before she could write best-selling novels, Louisa had to learn her letters. Bronson taught Louis and her sisters their first letters by having them form them with their bodies. “I” was created by standing straight and tall; “X” was made by stretching out both arms and legs, as if going into a jumping jack; and imitating a goose by twisting your neck into a curve and hissing resulted in the letter “S”.  Thank goodness she eventually learned to write these letters down, because instead of being remembered as an eloquent, but long-winded, performance artist, Louisa May Alcott will always be, somewhat, our Jo.

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13 Responses

  1. Stella says:

    Love this! Always wanted to know more about her life!

    • Hannah says:

      Well, if you’re really interested, she kept all those journals, and they were published, so you can trawl through them if you like!

  2. guineapig says:

    This was really interesting! I love Louisa May Alcott 😀

    • Hannah says:

      Me, too! I know I loved Little Women and my school did a play about Louisa writing it once, but I loved most her first book — Flower Fables — because it was all about children and faeries doing nice things for their families and it made me want to do sweet things for my own. What have you read of hers?

  3. Claire says:

    I have a project for this and this really help!

  4. Macy says:

    I had a project too!!!

  5. Addison says:

    I am so inspired to write things because of her!!!! 🙂

  6. Addison says:

    I am also doing a report on her!! 🙂

  1. November 29, 2015

    […] family friends included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, also some of Louisa’s first […]

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