Orchard House Museum
Orchard House, located in Concord, Massachusetts, is the former home of the Bronson Alcott family where daughter, Louisa May Alcott, wrote Little Women. Bronson Alcott, an educational reformer, joined two eighteenth century houses to create the existing home. The home is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and is included in the "Save America's Treasures" program. According to its website, the museum is only open from April to November. I was thrilled to learn, while visiting the Concord Museum, that Orchard House was open to the public in March. I was given directions to Orchard House, by the Concord museum staff, which is less than a mile away and passed one sign directing to it.
The big idea of the museum is Alcott’s seminal novel Little Women. The guided tour begins with a fifteen-minute introduction video that is partly narrated, but mainly told through a first-person interpreter portraying Louisa May Alcott. Little Women is based on Louisa's family and the video separates fact from fiction. The book was written in two parts with the first book ending with all of the fictive Alcott sisters remaining single. Louisa’s publishers received an untold amount of letters from fans wanting to know the sisters’ fate. Thus, the publishers requested a sequel and insisted that all of the women be married at the end of part two. Louisa was an ardent feminist and reformer who choose a career over marriage, and being forced to write a neat, happy ending displeased her, yet resulted in the Little Women we know today,
Orchard House is a unique, historic house museum in that there are no barriers to separate the visitors from any artifacts in the house. At the beginning of the tour, instructions are given not to touch anything; otherwise, visitors are free to get up close and personal to any of the artifacts on display. Also there is no labeling, however none is necessary. The tour guide did an excellent job of describing the history of both the family and its furnishings and knowledgeably answered any question asked. Eighty percent of the house is decorated with the Alcott's personal furniture and artifacts. Shabby chic would best describe the décor, with an emphasis on shabby, despite the considerable amount of wealth accrued by Louisa who was the highest paid author of her time, per the tour guide.
The house is in poor condition and a new foundation was put under it to keep it from sinking further into the ground in 2002. An archeological dig was conducted in conjunction with the restoration of the foundation and revealed glass and pottery artifacts dating to the early 1800s, prior to the Alcott family’s residence who lived there from the 1860s to the 1880s. The archaeology artifacts found are housed in a small case in the tiny visitor’s room that was formerly an art room. The dig also revealed a seventeenth century stone well that can be seen through Plexiglas placed on the floor above the well. Apparently, the Alcotts were aware of the well since a soapstone sink had been placed directly adjacent to it. Other features of interest are the desk Mr. Alcott built for Louisa in her bedroom, during an era when it was thought to be improper for a woman to have a desk of her own. The desk is built around a post on the wall facing the street and is quite small considering that Louisa stood five feet and ten inches tall. One of Louisa’s sisters was an accomplished artist who provided another unique feature on the walls of the house with her pencil etching, paintings, and pyrography, evidence of the Alcott’s true tolerance and support for their individual artistic freedom. The artwork is protected by Plexiglass panels.
The tour guide made it clear that Louisa M Alcott was an independent woman, however the home is interpreted through the lens of Little Women, however, the book is only one of her many accomplishments. There is no mention of Louisa’s significant involvement with the suffrage and other reform movements, a point that should be highlighted in the tour as it is in the gift shop where a considerable amount of scholarly literature on Alcott and her reform movement participation is for sale along with the products of her own literary endeavors.
In addition to the house, there is a large restored structure that looks like a barn that Bronson Alcott used as a classroom and it is still utilized for educational programs today. The building was locked and not included in the tour. I imagine there would be space there for a small exhibition addressing Louisa’s political life, if not on a permanent basis, at least something might have been presented there in recognition of Women’s History Month and Louisa’s contributions. Perhaps a lack of funds prohibits any additional interpretation of Orchard House at this time. Despite federal assistance, the museum seems to struggle under the weight of the considerable amount of the conservation and restoration required to maintain Orchard House as a viable institution.
Copyright @2013, Pamela Byers. All right reserved.