Last updated: May 12, 2021
"The exercise of civil rights is one of the best means of education" ~ Abigail May Alcott
Abigail May Alcott, was born October 8, 1800 to Colonel Joseph May, and Dorothy Sewall. Known for her kindness and passion, Abigail advocated for many causes from abolition, to women's suffrage, to education and found an ally in her future husband Bronson Alcott.
Upon engagement to Bronson Alcott in 1828 Abigail supposedly exclaimed, "We will have a home. Oh! Sacred word! Oh Holy spot!" However, during the next 15 years, they moved more than thirty times. Abigail wrote in her dairy, "The end I desire is to obtain a home for me and my family, a house and a few acres of land for us to occupy."
In 1843, at Fruitlands Farm in Harvard, Massachusetts, at the urging of her husband Bronson, Abigail, her family, and others experimented in a communal living project. When they nearly froze and starved, Abigail requested help from their neighbor who provided shelter consisting of only three rooms, which housed the two adults and four girls ages 4 to 13. At the time, they only had $13.00 to their names.
In 1845, on the Alcott's 15th wedding anniversary, Abigail's brother Samuel May and her cousin Samuel Sewall presented her with a sum of $2,000, which was her share of her father's estate. Their friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson found a home for them in Concord close by his on the Lexington Road. Using her inheritance, they purchased the house for $850.00. Emerson added another $500.00 to purchase eight acres of meadow land across the street for them to use as farmland.
The family moved into the house on April 1, 1845, and Bronson named it "Hillside." They immediately began renovating and rehabilitating the house. A wheelwright shed was cut in two, with one section added to the west side of the house and the other to the east side. The front of the west addition became Bronson's study. The rear was divided into two bedrooms for Abigail's older daughters Anna and Louisa, making them very happy, as recorded by Louisa in her journal.
In 1845, Abigail's four daughters ranged in age from 4-14: Anna, age 14, Louisa, age 12, Elizabeth, age 9, and Abby May, age 4. Anna and Louisa wrote and produced plays, including "Norna;or the Witch's Curse," that they acted out in the barn, with all the sisters participating in full costume. The girls re-enacted "Pilgrim's Progress," where Christian climbed up the mountains to the Celestial City. For this, Abigail provided them with bags filled with rags which they pretended were back packs. These childhood dramas became part of Louisa's writings, including Little Women.
In this house, the Alcotts sheltered at least one freedom seeker who was making their way along the Underground Railroad to Canada. Listening to descriptions of life in slavery influenced the family. Almost twenty years later, when they lived next door at Orchard House, Abigail helped her daughter Louisa pack her clothes when she volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War. Louisa served in a Union hospital in Washington, D.C. until she became ill. Louisa never fully recovered, though she wrote of her experience in her book, Hospital Sketches.
Making a Living
The Alcotts enjoyed three years at Hillside, 1845-1848. To earn money during this time, Abigail rented rooms to people and taught students. However, it wasn't long before the family was in such financial debt that they were forced to move again.
The family went to Boston, where Abigail secured a position as a City Missionary or Social Worker. Anna and Louisa taught, sewed, and became companions to friends or invalids. Elizabeth became a housekeeper. Bronson gave conversations and lectured in the West, earning little money until Louisa became well known.
Throughout her life, Abigail Alcott advocated equal rights for women. Abigail's courage gave inspiration for her daughters to also take up the fight for equality. In 1853 Abigail wrote a petition calling for a change in the Massachusetts constitution to grant political rights to women. She stated,
"We deem the extension to women of all civil rights, a measure of vital importance to the welfare and progress of the State. On every principle of natural justice, as well as by the nature of our institution, she is as fully entitled as man to vote, and to be eligible to office,"
In 1873 Louisa May Alcott recorded her mother's words, "I am seventy-three, but I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me." Unfortunately, Abigail never accomplished her goal of voting, however her daughter Louisa did.
Years later, Abigail's daughters recalled that some of their happiest memories were at Hillside. Here, their mother and father read to them, they reenacted plays in the barn, and their father Bronson oversaw their education, encouraging them at an early age to keep daily journals and to share their thoughts with the family. This honed their writing, composition, and reading skills. They enjoyed the visits from Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. Louisa often borrowed Emerson's books from his library.
Abigail provided the common sense and stability through the years, as her daughters recalled in later years. When Abigail died on November 25, 1877, Louisa May wrote in her diary,
"I never wish her back, but a great warmth seems gone out of life and there is no motive to go on now. She was so loyal, tender, and true, life was hard for her and no one knew all she had to bear but her children."
"On the 27th it was necessary to bury her, and we took her quietly away to Sleepy Hollow. A hard day, but the last duty we could do for her; and there we left her at sunset beside dear Lizzie's dust..."