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Louisa May Alcott collection

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: Vault MSS 503


  • Majority of material found within 1862-1888
  • 1837-1989


Conditions Governing Access

Originals restricted. Photocopy available for public use.

Conditions Governing Use

The copyright of this collection rests with the Estate of Theresa W. Pratt and the Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Permission from the Curator of Archives and Manuscripts is necessary to publish any item in its entirety.

Biographical / Historical

Louisa May Alcott, author of the Little Women series, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1832, to Bronson and Abigail (Abba) May Alcott. Little "Louy" had a difficult childhood, intensified by her strong desire to please her two strong-willed and conflicting parents. Bronson Alcott, an idealistic and impractical man, had unusual educational theories and experimented with his methods on his own children. In 1834, Bronson founded his ultra-modern but unsuccessful Temple School, located in Boston, at which students were encouraged to look into themselves to realize their individual intellects. His program stressed a conversational method of instruction, beautiful school surroundings, the honor system, and the study of recreation, including gymnastics and organized play. Although the school closed in 1839 due to many parents thinking his techniques dangerous and improper, Bronson's unconventional teaching methods had made a lasting impression on six-year-old Louy who wanted to be her father's perfect pupil.

Abba Alcott was a wise, long-suffering, and practical woman. She often had poor health and experienced extreme poverty as a result of her husband's idealism in his educational ventures, but Abba dealt with the family's situation with patience and strength. Louisa admired her mother greatly and was constantly attempting to please her; however, she also thought herself to be a bad child and a constant worry to her parents.

In 1840 the Alcotts moved to Concord, Massachusetts where their neighbors included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who introduced young Louisa to the beauties of nature and fanciful ideas. During the short time the Alcotts lived in Concord, Louy also began to write dramas for her sisters to enact in the barn. The memories of these barnyard melodramas and other childhood experiences would later find their way into Louisa's books, especially Little Women.

After a trip to Europe in 1842 to visit an experimental school named for him, Bronson Alcott returned with Charles Lane and Henry Wright. With them, Bronson bought a farm in Harvard, Massachusetts, called "Fruitlands," and there developed a utopian society for his family. Mr. Alcott's experiments with cold baths, linen tunics, and vegetarian diets were not compatible with the harsh New England winter, and the Alcott family suffered greatly from poor health and poverty until Bronson finally gave up on his "New Eden" scheme. The Alcotts then began a series of moves to and from Boston and Concord as Mr. Alcott searched for new means to support his family.

In September 1851, Louisa's first poem, entitled "Sunlight," was published in Peterson's Magazine under the pseudonym of "Flora Fairfield." This was followed by several other "Flora Fairfield" compositions, including "The Rival Painters: A Tale of Rome," (1852); "The Rival Prima Donnas," (1854); and Flower Fables (1854), a book of fairy stories written for Emerson's daughter, Ellen.

Louisa's first novel, Moods, was begun in 1860-1861. Her progress was impeded, however, by a desire to nurse soldiers wounded in the Civil War. Accepted as a nurse by the Union Hotel Hospital in December 1862, "Lu" worked too hard and was struck by a serious illness in January 1863. As a result of her exhaustion and poor health, she was left incapable of leaving her room and was unable to write until March. In August 1863, Louisa's letters to her family describing her experiences as a nurse were published in Hospital Sketches, under the pseudonym "Tribulation Periwinkle." Moods was finally published in December 1864.

During the mid to late 1860s, Louisa attempted another type of writing style which she called her "blood and thunder stories." These gothic romances, written under the pen name "A. M. Barnard," include "Pauline's Passion and Punishment"; "V.V.: or, Plots and Counterplots"; "A Marble Woman: or, The Mysterious Model"; and "Behind a Mask: or, A Woman's Power." Louisa also began her career as a children's author in 1867 as the editor of the juvenile magazine, Merry's Museum.

In September of 1867, Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers Publishing asked Louisa if she would write a children's book for him and, in May 1868, Little Women began to take shape. In this children's novel about the March family, Louisa encapsulated the Alcott home, presenting a cheerful account of her own early life in New England. The book gained instant recognition upon its publication in 1869, and Louisa's fame and fortune as an author was ensured. During the 1870s, Louisa published prolifically, completing at least one book per year. Little Women was rapidly followed by: An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870); Little Men (1871); Aunt-Jo's Scrap Bag (6 vols., 1872-82); Work: A Study of Experience (1873), a feminist and autobiographical novel; Eight Cousins (1875); "Silver Pitchers and Independence" and "Rose in Bloom" (1876); A Modern Mephistopheles (1877); Under the Lilacs (1878); and Jack and Jill (1880); Proverb Stories (1882); Spinning-Wheel Stories (1884); and Lulu's Library (3 vols., 1886-89).

The mad pace Louisa had set for her writing, however, could not last forever. After she had worked to exhaustion on Jo's Boys, her doctor forbade her to write for at least six months. From this point until her death, she constantly suffered from poor health and most of her energy was instead concentrated on rearing her niece, Louisa May ("Lulu") Nieriker, the daughter of her favorite sister May and Ernest Nieriker. May had died in 1879 shortly after Lulu's birth.

In June of 1887, Louisa began her last novel, A Garland for Girls, which was published in November. In July of 1887, she wrote and signed her will. On March 1, 1888, Louisa visited her ill father whom she feared she would never see alive again. Shortly afterwards she complained of a violent headache and immediately sank into unconsciousness. On March 4, Bronson Alcott died, and two days later Louisa followed him. She was fifty-six years old.

Note: The information for this biography was drawn from The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, ed. by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine B. Stern, "Introduction" by Madeleine B. Stern, (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1987); Louisa May Alcott at 150: A Writer's Progress, by Madeleine B. Stern, (Provo, Utah: Friends of the Brigham Young University Library, 1984); The Cambridge Handbook of America Literature, ed. by Jack Salzman, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 6; The Oxford Companion to American Literature, by James D. Hart, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 17; and Webster's American Biographies, ed. by Charles Van Doren, (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1979), p. 19.


2 boxes (1 linear ft.)

Language of Materials



The collection is arranged in two series to facilitate description, cataloging use, and further additions to the collection. The series are: 1. Louisa May Alcott papers, bulk 1862-1888 (contains items from 1947 and 1989). 2. Alcott family papers, 1837-1881. The contents of each series reflect provenance and the creative process that generated the original manuscripts.

Other Finding Aids

File-level inventory available online.

Custodial History

The documents in this collection were not acquired as one unit but have been gradually collected as individual items became available at auction and from dealers between 1978 and 1991. Most items were purchased in this manner from Rostenberg Rare Books, New York City, operated by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased; Rostenberg Rare Books, New York City; 1978-1991.


Western American history—Literary history (Mormon and Western American Manuscripts Collection Development Policy V.B.5.c, 2020).

Existence and Location of Copies

Photocopies of originals and other materials available in Box 2. Transcription available in Box 2.

Related Materials

For related information in the Department of Special Collections and Manuscripts, see John Sewall Pratt Alcott, "Last will and testament," (MSS SC 102) and Katherine Houghton, "To Heaven In a Swing," a monodrama based on the life, letters, and journals of Louisa May Alcott, (MSS SC 2366 and UTBV93A350); the Madeleine B. Stern Manuscript Collection, including some materials generated by Dr. Leona Rostenberg, Stern's long-time partner (MSS 1486 with unprocessed additions); and the Louisa May Alcott Book Collection. The book collection is discussed in detail in Madeleine B. Stern's, "Louisa May Alcott at BYU," an Alice Louise Reynolds Lecture (Provo, Utah: Friends of the Brigham Young University Library, 1991.) See also MSS 3681 (Louisa May Alcott letter to Mr. Higginson) and MSS 3953 (Madeleine B. Stern papers on Louisa May Alcott).


Related Titles: Free bed. Lines to a robin. Bitterest drop. Brothers. My contraband. To father. Jack and Jull. St. Nicholas.

Processing Information

Processed; Dennis Rowley and Helen L. Warner; 1998.

Register of Louisa May Alcott papers
Under Revision
Leslie Evens
2011 October 28
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English in Latin script.

Repository Details

Part of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Repository

1130 HBLL
Brigham Young University
Provo Utah 84602 United States