Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Hands All Around #5: Star Puzzle for Elizabeth Alcott


Block #5 Star Puzzle by Becky Brown

A block for Elizabeth (Peabody) Sewall Alcott, the quiet sister. 
The puzzle may be: "How could anyone be quiet in that family?"

 Elizabeth (Peabody) Sewall Alcott (1835-1858) 
Crayon (chalk) portrait by Caroline Negus Hildreth 1857
Collection of Orchard House

Lizzie was named for her father's teaching associate Elizabeth Peabody but when they had a falling out he changed his daughter's middle name to Sewall after her maternal grandmother's distinguished family.

Letter from Bronson Alcott on Lizzie's fifth birthday

Sister Louisa called her Lizzie but also Betty. In Little Women we know her as Beth, here seated on the floor in a Frank T. Merrill illustration.

Star Puzzle by Addison

Louisa's journal summarizing happenings in 1853 when Lizzie was 18: 

"Father to the West to try his luck,–so poor, so hopeful, so serene...Mother had several boarders, and May got on well at school. Betty was still the home bird, and had a little romance with C."
Lizzie was the odd daughter in the Alcott quartet---the shy "home bird" with no other ambition but to live quietly at home, the designated girl who would remain single and care for her aging parents. But we know all too well she did not achieve that goal. Her death in Little Women is a shock for young readers who (if they are lucky) learn about such things from books like the Little Women and Little House on the Prairie series.

Beth's younger sister Abbie May illustrated the first edition
 of Little Women. Here Elizabeth welcomes Mr. March
home from the Civil War.

Lizzie never saw the Civil War, dying at 22 years old in 1858 just before the family moved into Orchard House but Louisa transposed time in her novel, portraying the girls as children and adolescents during the war.

In May's book illustration Beth clings to her 
mother. At 28 the artist had a hard time
with proportion, portraying her younger self as
larger than Beth. She got better with training.

Lizzie remained a presence in the real-life Alcott home during the war, remembered by all who missed her, probably recalled and celebrated fondly on her birthday each year. One puzzle to us is her illness and death. 

Star Puzzle by Dorry Emmer in winter landscape colors

When Lizzie was about 20 Abba Alcott accepted the generosity of one of her Sewall cousins who offered a rent-free home in Walpole, New Hampshire to the hapless family. Abba, Louisa, Lizzie and Abbie May moved there in the spring of 1855. Anna was teaching in Syracuse, New York. Bronson is absent. 

Jo and Beth at her work by Jessie Willcox Smith
for a 1922 edition of Little Women

Despite their poverty Abba's continuing concern for people extended to inviting a poor family to eat with them. They blamed the guests for the scarlet fever the younger girls soon caught.

Louisa described events in her journal (a sort of monthly summary) published in 1898 as Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals, edited by her biographer Ednah D. Cheney. Here is her description of the contagion.

"June, 1856.–Home, to find dear Betty very ill with scarlet-fever caught from some poor children Mother nursed when they fell sick, living over a cellar where pigs had been kept. The landlord (a deacon) would not clean the place till Mother threatened to sue him for allowing a nuisance. Too late to save two of the poor babies or Lizzie and May from the fever."

Louis Jambor's illustration of the fatal visit for
a 1947 edition of Little Women

Youngest May had a mild case of the fever with its distinctive red rash but Lizzie's was severe and she seems to have suffered long-term complications from the infection---a streptococcus bacteria. Complications can include rheumatic fever affecting the heart, brain and joints. Other potentially fatal effects are kidney and liver failure. 
"You may have heard how very sick my Lizzy has been. Scarlet fever took us all down in its various stages of virulence, but it fixed on Lizzy most tenaciously." Abba Alcott to her brother Samuel May, July, 1855. The dates conflict here. Was it 1855 or 1856?
Poor Lizzie was never well after her bout with scarlet fever and she wasted away for over two years until she died racked with pain (perhaps in her joints or from organ failure) delusional and medicated with ether and opiates, which seem to have done little good in her final days as her heart failed.

On March 14th, 1858:
"My dear Beth died at three this morning, after two years of patient pain. Last week she put her [needle]work away, saying the needle was 'too heavy,' and having given us her few possessions, made ready for the parting in her own simple, quiet way. For two days she suffered much, begging for ether, though its effect was gone. Tuesday she lay in Father's arms, and called us round her, smiling contentedly as she said, 'All here!' I think she bid us good-by then, as she held our hands and kissed us tenderly. Saturday she slept, and at midnight became unconscious, quietly breathing her life away till three; then, with one last look of the beautiful eyes, she was gone."

Star Puzzle by Dorry Emmer 12""

In the 1949 movie Margaret O'Brien played Beth on the left below, another transposition in which she was the youngest child, here with Elizabeth Taylor as an older Amy (May). Note the quilt:

A version of this hearts and berries applique.

Colorized death bed scene from the 1949 movie.

 The Block

Block 5 is much like #3 but with a twist in the triangle shading.

A Star Puzzle from the Iowa project & the Quilt Index

BlockBase #2146

Star Puzzle in the Ladies Art Company catalog
at the end of the 19th century.


You need four B triangles and 16 C triangles.

8” Block (2” Grid)
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.
12” Block (3” Grid)

16” Block (4” Grid)

Star Puzzle by Pat Styring
She added pattern to her light fabrics with stamps and ink

Beth March at her piano by Jessie Willcox Smith.
Smith is my favorite Little Women artist with
her accurate costume detail.

Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), a great illustrator 
born during the Civil War

See a post about the quilts in the 1949 film:

A Stellar Set

12"  Blocks Offset

This month's set has a missing block, much as Lizzie is the missing family member. If you offset 11 blocks and filled in the middle strip with a couple of rectangles at the ends you'd have a rather modern look. Here are blocks 1-5 with 6 more to go. (You can eliminate that star you didn't get around to making.) The length = 4 x whatever your block size is. Four 12" blocks would give you a quilt 48" x 36" without borders.

Early 20th century?

Post Script

Clara Gowing, friend of Lizzie's older sister Anna, visited the Alcotts at Orchard House during the Civil War. She wrote a memoir of the family. Clara, a very generous person herself,  had great respect for the girls' mother:
"I was calling there one day when a covering for a quilt was needed for the soldiers and she went into the attic and brought down a dress of the dear departed Lizzie's saying: 'The girls think Lizzie's clothes too sacred to be touched, but this had better be in use for the soldiers than lying in the attic.' "

Patients at a Washington soldiers' hospital with comforters that look
to be wholecloth and patchwork. Lizzie would have loved to know
where her dress went.

Ooooh! That Alcott attic!

I hope friend and neighbor Elizabeth Peabody wasn't too upset
about losing Lizzie's middle name. Here is Lizzie's grave
as Elizabeth Sewall Alcott.

Further Reading:
Read Clara Gowing's The Alcotts As I Knew Them, published in 1909.

1 comment:

Susan Bailey said...

Love this! I shared your link on my Lizzie Alcott blog ( and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion (