Exactly 154 years ago to the day, a grand celebration was being held within those very walls. As I stood looking over the wedding gown that Anna Alcott wore on May 23, 1860, in this modest yet iconic little home, a familiar sense of historic intimacy washed over me. Remove a century and a half and a roomful of tourists, and it was as if Louisa could traipse into the room at any time, anxious to share this momentous day with her sister. Only time prevented us from being right there to experience it with her.
The Parlor (foreground) and Dining Room (background) of Orchard House (Photographer: Herb Barnett). Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House
I could hear the din of guests in the living room below – Emerson and Thoreau would have been there along with numerous other Concord residents and family. At the time, Louisa was a precocious 28-year old budding author, gathering inspiration for her novels. Anna’s wedding scene that day would serve as prime material for Little Women, which would be written in that very room eight years later. The memory was soft and lovely, captured perfectly by Louisa – a family preparing for its next chapter and a simple ceremony that intertwined the lives of two individuals.
Louisa May Alcott’s Bedchamber (Photographer: Herb Barnett). Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House
The Alcott sisters’ spirit remains vibrant and alive at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Beth had died shortly before the family moved to the house in 1858, yet her presence is noted by her piano and portrait in the dining room. Paintings by May (“Amy” in Little Women) hang throughout the house and her room is filled with charming sketches she made on the wall. A visit to Emerson’s house, just down the street, reveals the source of some of her inspiration, as he often loaned her paintings from his own collection to use as sketch patterns. Louisa’s room remains notably unchanged from her time
Louisa May Alcott’s shelf desk in her bedchamber at Orchard House; calla lilies and other artwork on the wall above the desk painted by her sister, May. Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House
there and any literary pilgrim can’t help but stand in awe of the small, half-moon desk created by her father and illustrated by her sister, on which she penned Little Women in a matter of just a few weeks. Anna (“Beth” in the novel) is memorialized by the display of her wedding gown, as illustrated by Louisa (herself, “Jo” in the novel): “she made her wedding gown herself, sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart. Her sisters braided up her pretty hair, and the only ornaments she wore were the lilies of the valley, which ‘her John’ liked best of all the flowers that grew.”
I visited Orchard House with my husband of two weeks, on our East Coast wedding celebration trip to visit family. It just so happened that it was the anniversary date of Anna and John’s wedding. Standing there, with the memory of my own wedding fresh in my mind, it struck me how little has changed in the way such monumental occasions bring family together and ceremoniously mark moments in our genealogical history. Such moments echo through time. If proper attention continues to be provided to historic sites such as Orchard House, future generations will be lucky enough to experience the inspiration that witnessing seemingly simple details of the past can offer. The Alcott girls could have had no inkling that their story would continue to be told or that Anna’s simple wedding gown would inspire such insight so far in the future.
One woman, inspired by three sisters and two very eclectic parents, managed to keep her family’s story alive. One house, backed by passionate preservationists and ardent supporters, allows a new audience a glimpse into a world centuries past yet warmly familiar. Walking through Orchard House evokes the spirit of lives lived with a resilient and deliberate connection to their surroundings. The Alcott family had opened its doors to a new world of thinking and philosophy thereby impressing its younger generation with an appreciation of arts, culture and the written world. We are the beneficiaries of that legacy.
The June roses over the porch were awake bright and early on that morning, rejoicing with all their hearts in the cloudless sunshine, like friendly little neighbors, as they were. Quite flushed with excitement were their ruddy faces, as they swung in the wind, whispering to one another what they had seen, for some peeped in at the dining room windows where the feast was spread, some climbed up to nod and smile at the sisters as they dressed the bride, others waved a welcome to those who came and went on various errands in garden, porch, and hall, and all, from the rosiest full-blown flower to the palest baby bud, offered their tribute of beauty and fragrance to the gentle mistress who had loved and tended them so long.
Meg looked very like a rose herself, for all that was best and sweetest in heart and soul seemed to bloom into her face that day, making it fair and tender, with a charm more beautiful than beauty. Neither silk, lace, nor orange flowers would she have. “I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self.”
So she made her wedding gown herself, sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart. Her sisters braided up her pretty hair, and the only ornaments she wore were the lilies of the valley, which ‘her John’ liked best of all the flowers that grew.
“You do look just like our own dear Meg, only so very sweet and lovely that I should hug you if it wouldn’t crumple your dress,” cried Amy, surveying her with delight when all was done.
“Then I am satisfied. But please hug and kiss me, everyone, and don’t mind my dress. I want a great many crumples of this sort put into it today,” and Meg opened her arms to her sisters, who clung about her with April faces for a minute, feeling that the new love had not changed the old.
– Little Women, Louisa May Alcott