Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Hands All Around #4: For Louisa May Alcott


Block #4, Eight Hands Around by Pat Styring

Eight Hands Around is a good block to represent the four Alcott girls with eight hands devoted to both serious causes and entertainments.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Photo taken during the Civil War before her nursing duty in Washington.
Friend Augusta Bowers French remembered:
 "I can see Miss Alcott now, breezy & snappy & using a lot of slang."

During the four years of Civil War Louisa led a busy life. She turned thirty, a significant occasion that permitted her to serve as a nurse. Rules written by Director of Nurses Dorothea Dix demanded one must be over thirty to volunteer. And so Louisa went to Washington in December, 1862 soon after her birthday to do what she could at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown.

Eight Hands Around by Becky Brown
Fussy cutting a stripe

Family and friends lent a hand. Neighbor Sophia Peabody Hawthorne inked Louisa's clothes with laundry marks. She tells us Abba fretted that she'd be helpless without her daughter and Bronson announced he was sending "his only son." Louisa naively packed her games and Dickens novels to entertain the patients.
Letter from Sophia Hawthorne to daughter Una.

The Union Hotel Hospital
was a model of what not to do with injured and ill patients.

Eight Hands Around by Dennniele Bohannon (16")

Louisa's turn as a nurse lasted only six weeks; the work almost killed her and certainly traumatized her. She caught typhoid fever, the hospital scourge, and her father was called to take her home. Both survived the trip, something the Hawthornes found miraculous. Rosa Hawthorne Lathrop:
"Truly, [Bronson] Alcott was completely at the beck of illusion; and he was always safer alone with it than near the hard uses of adverse reality. I well remember my astonishment when I was told that he had set forth to go into the jaws of the Rebellion after Louisa, his daughter, who had succumbed to typhus [typhoid] fever while nursing the soldiers. His object was to bring her home; but it was difficult to believe that he would be successful in entering the field of misery and uproar. I never expected to see him again."
Collection of  Houghton Library, Harvard
Sophia and husband Nathaniel Hawthorne lived next door 
after buying this house from the Alcotts. You get an idea
 of the steepness of the hill behind the houses on the Lexington Road.

That rescue mission may have been Bronson's shining moment and her hospital service Louisa's. Some accounts tell us that Dorothea Dix helped out by sending two of her nurses to accompany the Alcotts on the railroad back to Concord.

Eight Hands Around by Janet Perkins

Once home Louisa was bedridden for weeks (delirious for a few) and woke up to find she was bald. The doctors had ordered her head shaved in Washington to apply blistering chemicals to her scalp. (You might have been better off without doctoring at the time.) Blisters were raised on the scalp with a hot wig or a powder of abrasive concoctions. The blisters were lanced and as they drained the hypothesis was that the toxic humors of typhoid drained away.

Louisa turned her hair loss into plot in Little Women

Eight Hands Around by Addison

Louisa told friend Frank Stearns: "The loss of my hair was the worst of it."

Louisa survived the typhoid and the blistering. In March she begin writing down her memories of those dark Washington days into four "Hospital Sketches," published in a Boston paper under the pen name Tribulation Periwinkle.

Tribulation Periwinkle's coat of arms

 Hospital Sketches was her first successful book and for the rest of the war her main occupation was writing---writing to keep her family solvent and writing because she loved to do it.

Jo in a writing vortex with curl papers in her hair

Louisa describes her mania, "writing fits," as one of  her alter ego Jo March's obsessions.

"When the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh. Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her 'vortex' hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent."

 Biographer Harriett Reisen, who wrote and produced the PBS documentary on Louisa, looks at these "fits" that alternated with "existential despair." 

"Was Louisa Alcott, like so many artists, manic depressive? Certainly her creative pattern and mood swings are consistent with the diagnosis, according to the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, an authority on manic-depressive, or bipolar, mental illness." 

Louisa was quite productive during the Civil War. Her charitable works for freed slaves' and soldiers' relief organizations included producing plays and dramatic events for fairs. She volunteered to dramatize "Six Scenes from Dickens" in conjunction with the Sanitary Fair held in Boston at Music Hall in December, 1863.

Music Hall in Boston, 1850s
Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“Things did not go well for want of a good manager and more time," she complained. "Our night was not at all satisfactory to us, owing to the falling through of several scenes for want of actors [but] People liked what there was of it.” And the drama raised $2,500 for the Sanitary Commission's mission.

The following year she sent a sketch "A Hospital Lamp" as a donation to the Brooklyn, New York Sanitary Fair newspaper, The Drum Beat

By then her name was beginning to have value; she was on her way to becoming the celebrity that Little Women would create in 1868.

Dorry Emmer is making blocks of different sizes for
her winter landscape blocks---just a spark of red in the stars.

The Block

Eight Hands Around is BlockBase #2168, first published by the Ladies' Art Company over a hundred years ago.

Eight Hands Around by Dorry Emmer.
Her Christmas version

8” Block (2-Inch Grid)
A—Cut  1 square 2-1/2”.
B—Cut 1 square 5-1/4”. Cut into 4 triangles with two diagonal cuts. You need 4.
C—Cut 8 squares 2-7/8”. Cut each into 2 triangles with one diagonal cut. You need 16 triangles.

12” Block (3” Grid)
A—Cut squares 3-1/2”
B—Cut squares 7-1/4”
C—Cut squares 3-7/8”
16” Block (4” Grid)
A—Cut squares 4-1/2”
B—Cut squares 9-1/4”
C—Cut squares 4-7/8”

D -  Cut 4 small squares
8” - 1-1/2”
12” 2”
16” - 2-1/2"

E - Cut 4 squares. Cut into 2 triangles with 1 diagonal cut. You need 8.
8” - 1-7/8”
12” - 2-3/8”
16” - 2-7/8”

F - Cut 1 square. Cut into 4 triangles with 2 diagonal cuts. You need 4.
8” - 3-1/4”
12” - 4-1/4”
16” - 5-1/4”

Ladies's Legacy sketch

 A dance at the March house from an edition of Little Women.
Eight Hands Around was a dance figure.

Elizabeth Hawley
West Virginia project & the Quilt Index
Have few pictures of this particular double star quilt
with the triangles in the corners

A Stellar Set

Louisa in Washington, from Hospital Sketches

Two years ago we did an applique Block of the Month Hospital Sketches, inspired by Louisa's wartime work. The first block, a wreath or periwinkles, was for her:

Periwinkle Wreath by Georgann Eglinski

This month's set idea is a Periwinkle Wreath applique block alternating with the 16" star samplers. You can squeeze the wreath into a 16" finished square to make an 80" square quilt (12 pieced stars + 13 appliques.)

Extra Reading & Watching

See the 2009 PBS documentary in their American Masters series, "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women." You can stream it on their Passport feature and local stations occasionally replay it. And you can buy the video.

Read a letter from Louisa nursing in Washington to Hannah Stevenson in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society here:

Many of the views of the Alcotts by their friends and acquaintances come from Daniel Shealy's Alcott in Her Own Time, vignettes from memoirs. See a preview here:

Here's a book focusing on Louisa's war time nursing:
Samantha Seiple,  Louisa on the Front Lines

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