Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Hands All Around #2: Bronson Alcott Missouri Star


Hands All Around Block #2 Missouri Star to remember Bronson Alcott
by Denniele Bohannon (8 inches)

Amos Bronson Alcott  (1799-1888)
Perhaps in his 60s, about the time of the Civil War

One prime difference between fiction and fact comparing the novel Little Women to the real- life Alcotts in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War is in the persona of the girls' father. The fictional Marmee's husband Mr. March is a minister who serves as a Union chaplain.

Illustration of Robert March by Frank T. Merrill
"Mr. March became invisible in the embrace of four pairs of loving arms."
Although he is a bit vague as a character, many readers have developed an affection for the absent
father who lost all his fortune in a good (if badly planned) deed and caught a case of [typhoid?] pneumonia at the front. With the absence of the well-intentioned father the family story becomes a tale of self-reliant women.

Missouri Star by Becky Brown

The real-life, self-reliant Abba Alcott was often left alone to raise her children during husband Bronson's absences. He spent six months in England when Louisa was ten and never seemed able to earn a living although he traveled the lecture circuit and opened and closed schools from Philadelphia to Boston, among them The Concord School of Philosophy in the back yard. His philosophical journeys took him as far west as St. Louis, where Missourians gave him respect he didn't often find in Concord.

I would guess few 21st-century female readers have formed an affection for the real Bronson Alcott revealed in John Matteson's dual biography Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott & Her Father. His self absorption dominates the family story.

And yet they loved him dearly and so did his many friends.

Missouri Star by Pat Styring

Alcott loved to talk of the benefits of a vegetarian (if not a fruititarian) diet, exasperating neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne who warned a guest: "You may begin at Plato or the day's news...he will come around to pears."

Boring he could be; irresponsible and self-centered he definitely was.  Clinically mentally ill at times...And yet...

Denniele Bohannon's 16" Missouri Star

During the Civil War years Bronson held the position of Superintendent of the Concord schools, a job for which he was well suited and poorly paid ($100 annually.) The most important event in his Civil War was a January, 1863 train trip to Washington to rescue daughter Louisa fighting typhoid pneumonia at a Union hospital where she served briefly as a nurse. Louisa fictionalized this life-saving mission in Little Women with Marmee traveling to bring Mr. March home.

The Concord School of Philosophy behind Orchard House.
As he aged after the war people enjoyed coming here for 
his philosophical programs. 

Missouri Star seems a long way from Bronson Alcott's New England but it's a good block to recall another important event on New Year's Eve in December, 1862, a week or two before Louisa became ill. The country was about a year into the Civil War; Lincoln had revealed his support of the abolition idea that Concord's citizens advocated in an executive order, an Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect on January 1, 1863.

The Stearns Estate called Evergreens

Missouri Star by Dorry Emmer (12")

New England's intellectual elites celebrated Emancipation at a party at the estate of Mary Preston & George Luther Stearns of Medford, Massachusetts and Bronson was important enough to be invited (perhaps Abba accompanied him.)  Stearns, a wealthy industrialist, was a financial supporter of antislavery zealot John Brown. After Brown's arrest and execution for fomenting revolution at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859 the Stearnses continued to support him as a hero, as did much of the Alcott's circle.

CDV's were sold with the Brackett portrait of Brown.
Mary Stearns also commissioned plaster copies.

Mary Stearns was so enamored of Brown she hired sculptor Edward Augustus Brackett to visit him in his death row cell and take cranial measurements for a memorial bust, which she unveiled at the New Year's Eve event the Stearns called the John Brown Party.

Medford Public Libary
Mary Preston Stearns (1821-1901) 
 Her aunt was abolitionist Lydia Maria Child.

Guests came to Medford on the railroad in the afternoon (probably at Stearn's expense) and gathered at the mansion for a "proper interval for communion of spirit." "Felix" of Boston who was there wrote an account for The Liberator newspaper. The Brown bust, draped with a star-spangled covering, was unveiled by Wendell Phillips (or perhaps by the sculptor in another account). Bronson was impressed. “There was something thunderous about his brow that Brackett has caught in his bust." 

Map showing the Browns and their neighbors the Doyles claims
near Pottawatomie Creek adapted from Otto Scott's book The Secret Six

John Brown can be viewed as a hero or a terrorist. Before he organized his futile raid on the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry he spent some time in the Kansas Territory where he and his sons killed five  men in the Doyle family who'd come from Tennessee to claim land in what the Browns hoped would become a state without slavery---or Southerns in general. Still called the Pottawatomie Massacre, their  killing frenzy on the Kansas/Missouri border in 1856 brought the Brown family to national attention. The Alcotts did not view him as murderer or psychotic---Brown's ends justified his means.

Louisa spent that Jubilee Night, the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington's Union Hospital where sick in bed herself she watched festivities from her window.

 Alcott graves at Concord's Sleepy Hollow cemetery

The Block

BlockBase #2154
Missouri Star by Dorry Emmer

The pattern was not published until 1933 when the Nancy Cabot newspaper column in the Chicago Tribune printed a block from a Missourian "who gave it the name of her native state...It is an old pattern, but beautifully adapted to use with modern furnishings."

After looking around for some antique examples I would have to say this particular arrangement of the sawtooth star is not old---and I don't have any examples made from Nancy's pattern either. But lots of recent examples.

Missouri Star by Gloria Clarke

8” Block (2” Grid)
A—Cut 4 squares 2-1/2”
B—Cut 1 square 5-1/4”. Cut into 4 triangles with two diagonal cuts.
 C—Cut 2 squares 2-7/8”. Cut each into 2 triangles with one diagonal cut. 
D - Cut 4 Squares 3-1/4”. Cut each into 4 triangles with 2 diagonal cuts.
E - Cut 1 square 3-3/8”. 

12” Block (3” Grid)
D -  4-1/4” 
E -  4-3/4” 

16” Block (4” Grid)
D - 5-1/4”
E - 6-1/8”   


Fabrics from my Moda collection Ladies' Legacy in shops soon.

Denniele's 8" blocks alternating with the curved set
See a pattern at this post:

About 1875 a photographer took individual photos of the Alcott parents in their library. I stitched them together in Photoshop to make this dual portrait of Bronson and Abba Alcott towards the end of their eventful life together.

Missouri Star by Addison

Post Script
Like many people in Concord raised within New England's restricting Calvinism, Bronson Alcott reacted by making up his own religion, a form of Transcendentalism--the idea that man could and should aim to achieve perfection. His faith was rooted in denial and focused on a diet eschewing edibles he believed sinful. 

The philosopher with a few apples---the perfect food---
in his yard at Orchard House (Louisa called the estate Apple Slump.)

His rules changed over time--Animal flesh was consistently anathema but during his manic flights of obsessive thinking he believed fruit was the only acceptable food. Annie Boyd Rioux characterizes Bronson as a religious fanatic and few would argue. At one point his vegetarianism encompassed only vegetables that grew above ground. Beets and carrots grown in the dirt were forbidden.

Seven months at Bronson's Fruitlands commune
when Louisa was 11 was the low point in the family's nutritional history.
No protein = no muscle growth

What was the long term effect on the health of his wife and children?  Abba was pregnant seven or eight times with one still birth and two or three miscarriages. When one reads Louisa's long list of  physical complaints in the last 25 years of her life (she died of a stroke at 55 as Bronson did in his 80s) one has to wonder how many symptoms were caused by childhood malnutrition, which has long lasting effects on bones, joints and the gastro-intestinal system. Vegetarians today are supported by food like calcium-enriched soy milk and vitamin-enriched cereals but the Alcott children spent months at times on near starvation diets, catering to their father's beliefs and budget.

Louisa knew what rickets was; she complained in one letter that her pen seemed to be afflicted with rickets, meaning her letters looked like they were knock-kneed and bow-legged, two symptoms of a Vitamin D deficiency. She herself had several chronic symptoms of rickets. She complained of headaches and vertigo, rheumatism (joint pain), general musculo-skeletal pain and poor digestion.

Collection of Orchard House
1870 portrait of Louisa at 37 years old by George Healy
Bronson did not like it:
“The flesh was haggard and the features too elongated for a true lifelike likeness.”

Louisa blamed all her pains on mercury poisoning but her complaints are also consistent with childhood and adult malnutrition. It's hard to get enough Vitamin D from the sunshine in Massachusetts and harder still if one's diet does not include eggs and fish.

Woman with "pellagra in advanced state" and child with rickets.
He's two but does not talk. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939,
Jefferson, Texas. Library of Congress

The woman holding the child with a Vitamin D deficiency is herself suffering from what is called pellagra, a niacin (Vitamin B3) deficiency. One gets niacin from meat and fish and some grains. Symptoms of a deficiency include diarrhea, weakness, loss of appetite, lack of energy, skin rashes and abdominal pain, the kind of chronic complaints that caused Louisa to spend her last year in a sanitarium. 

Further Reading:

Anne Boyd Rioux, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters tells the story of Louisa's novel, the “paradigmatic book about growing up, especially for the female half of the population.

See previews of John Matteson's Eden's Outcasts
Someone thought enough of Bronson's philosophy to piece
one of his "Orphic Sayings" in hexagons in the mid-20th century.


Janet O. said...

Decades ago I read a biography on Bronson Alcott and was troubled by the way his family was forced to live, based on his whims and fancies. I am enjoying the additional insight of your further research. Excellent job on the "stitched together" portrait! :)

Faunacoco said...

Wow what a tale of woe. So sad about father Bronson’s obsessive thinking and focus on fruit. Amazing with protein deficiency that Louisa could be as thoughtful and creative as she was. Beautiful block too.

sue s said...

Both my grandmother and my mother-in-law have suffered from pernicious anemia which is a vitamin B disease. Both older women living alone and not eating right. My MIL has no short term memory at all but has recovered from some of the other affects. She is now living with my SIL. Interesting man and history.

Mary said...

Hi Barbara, love love love your blog! I am making the quilt in 2 colorways--a red/white/blue in civil war reproductions and a lavender/green one in a fabric line I've had for awhile called "Potting Shed." Both are turning out lovely! In my stash I found a great blue from your Union Blues line and my red is from your Butternut and Blue line from years ago. I guess I had to find the perfect project for them! And I just ordered the 150th anniversary copy of Little Women. I read it as a child, but that was a long time ago....I'm looking forward to reading it again and sewing along with the group. I love that you have a 10-year old sewing along with us. How special is that. Covid has made me realize how special my online friends are, so thank you dear friend for all your wonderful information and inspiration. Mary in Richmond, Virginia

Paula M said...

Does anyone else think that Barbara's new Ladies Legacy fabric collection would be great for the Hands All Around quilt?

Nann said...

I recall reading one incident about the Alcotts: they were poor, it was winter, it was cold. Abba had procured badly-needed firewood. Bronson gave it away to another family saying that they needed it more. What power he had over his family -- that Louisa's professional career came about because of the need to make money to support all the Alcotts, that Bronson was too feckless/nutty/self-absorbed.......I do like the quilt block in all the interpretations!