The most recent movie of the novel, Little Women, released in 2019. What viewers may not realize is that director Greta Gerwig was able to do part of her filming in and around the actual house where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote Little Women.
Orchard House, as it is known, stands in Concord, Massachusetts, and is more than 350 years old. But its fame was acquired in the 1850s when Louisa May Alcott and her family made it their home.
Orchard House Preserved
In 1911, a new owner planned to clear the property, but a group of local preservationists rallied to save the house where Little Women was written. Orchard House is now run as a museum by the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association. The property was one of the first literary house museums in the country; it is also unique because it honors a notable American woman.
The preservation of the house was a great gift to Alcott readers, and provided an authentic backdrop for Greta Gerwig when she began planning her passion project of making a film of Little Women, a book she loved growing up.
The Alcotts and the House
From the early days of the country’s founding, the house that was to become the Alcott home was usually occupied. However, by the mid-19th century it was showing its age and had been very much neglected.
Bronson Alcott was a philosopher and educator who joined the transcendental movement along with such men as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Alcott always had trouble making a living at what he did, but he was dedicated to his philosophy and his beliefs about education. Because they lacked financial stability, the family moved often. Over thirty years, they moved 22 times.
Concord was a Hub
Because of the connection to transcendentalists, Bronson Alcott often visited the Concord area where Emerson’s home was. On occasion, the family settled there. When Bronson Alcott’s experimental community, Fruitlands in Massachusetts, failed in the mid-1840s, Emerson urged him to return to Concord. The Alcotts lived at a house known as Hillside for a time.
Almost ten years later, Alcott saw Orchard House was for sale. It was dilapidated and would require work before being habitable, but the condition of the house brought the price down to something affordable for a teacher/philosopher. Alcott made an offer and acquired the house and 12 acres of property.
The women of the family must have been thrilled at the thought of settling down, but when Louisa and her mother first saw the dilapidated house, they jokingly referred to it as “Apple Slump.”
Bronson Alcott spent a year fixing up the house. He and some local men moved the smaller tenant farmhouse to link to the manor house so that Bronson would have room for his school.
By 1858, the house was habitable, and the family moved in. They named it “Orchard House” for the apple orchard on the property. The Alcotts lived at Orchard House from 1858 through 1877.
Louisa May Alcott at Orchard House
When the family moved into Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott was already selling magazine pieces to add to the family income. As Bronson Alcott worked on the house, he built a small, half-moon shaped desk in Louisa’s bedroom. At a time when women were encouraged to only cook, sew, and clean, Louisa treasured this visible sign from her father that she should have a place to write.
That half-moon desk (which visitors may see) is where she wrote Little Women (1868). And of course, not only was Little Women written at Orchard House, but the story was loosely based on their lives there as well.
“We are extremely fortunate that Louisa’s books made her famous during her lifetime,” says executive director of Orchard House Jan Turnquist.”This meant that within fifteen to twenty years of the family’s departure, community members took an interest in saving it.”
Turnquist also says that this helped with recovery of family possessions. Relatives donated some furniture and other items back to the museum when they saw that the house was to be saved.
Louisa and Fame
Louisa herself saw this fame quite differently. Because the book was an almost immediate success, people came to the house to visit. They wanted to meet the author. Early paparazzi—newspaper reporters and illustrators—also stayed nearby for a glimpse of the famous writer. Louisa’s health was not good, and the additional distractions were upsetting to her. It sometimes kept her from writing.
Little Women is considered one of the early works of American feminist literature. Though Louisa herself remained on the sidelines of social movements, her style was to create strong female characters who spoke their mind.
In Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother, a dual biography written by Eve La Plante, Abigail (Marmee) is revealed to be very active in fighting for civil rights and for women to gain the vote.
La Plante writes: “Louisa dreamed of a world in which women would have the same public rights as men—to vote, travel, speak out, and run governments.”
And perhaps that is part of what provides the books with their endurance.
No Diminishing Interest
In a phone interview long before the film was underway, Turnquist reported that there has never been a drop in interest in the lives of the four sisters and Marmee. The book has never been out of print, and it has been published in over 50 languages.
“We still have young girls coming with their mothers or their families, clutching the book and wanting to know more about the Alcotts.”
Turnquist also says that many of the visitors travel to the United States from other countries, and Orchard House figures prominently in their trip plans.
Today with the introduction of the new film starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, Laura Dern as Marmee, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie and Meryl Streep as Aunt March, the house is sure to be overrun with visitors who want to step back to the past to see what inspired Louisa May Alcott.
Before the Alcotts
As early as the late 1600s, a colonist named John Hoar (1622-1704) occupied the house. Hoar was among the early settlers of Concord. During King Philip’s War, he was a militia leader and Indian liaison. For the era, Hoar’s house was quite large; it consisted of four rooms — two rooms above and two rooms below. The kitchen was in a separate building as was the custom of the day because of fire danger.
The house also figured into an important part of American history by virtue of being in the town where the initial conflict of the Revolutionary War took place. Concord had been selected by the Patriots as the site where supplies for a possible battle would be stockpiled.
On April 18, 1775, the British disembarked from their ships in Boston harbor and began marching to Lexington and Concord. They intended to capture Patriots Sam Adams and John Hancock who were rumored to be in Lexington. From there, the Redcoats would continue to Concord to destroy the ammunition and supplies that were hidden there.
This movement of the British was Paul Revere’s cue to warn the countryside. He and several other messengers rode hard to alert colonists that the British were coming. John Hancock and Sam Adams were notified in time to leave Lexington, but Revere and two other messengers were stopped on the road to Concord. One messenger got away, and fortunately other colonists also helped spread the word.
At Concord, the colonists stood their ground and rebuffed the British troops at the Old North Bridge. The British had no choice but to retreat.
Undoubtedly, Orchard House, located prominently on the Lexington Road, must have been an important location for the Patriots. Timothy Hoar, John Hoar’s great grandson, occupied the House in 1775, and his son, Timothy Junior, was a member of the Concord Minutemen.
Visitors today can relish the opportunity to visit the house where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived. They can also step back in time to appreciate the fact that the house was standing at the time the Revolutionary War began.
For more information about visiting the house, click here.