Thursday, December 10, 2020

Little Women Clubs and Boston Philanthropy

Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith, c. 1915.
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published just after the Civil War, was a runaway best seller that impacted generations of readers and significantly influenced American culture as a whole, through countless editions, versions, sequels, translations, images, plays, and films. Little Women was so compelling that it inspired young fans to create spontaneous clubs, such as the “Little Men and Little Women,” the “Alcott Reading Club,” and the “Alcott Literary Club.” Inspired by the March sisters’ Pickwick Portfolio, five sisters from a small town in Pennsylvania created a family newspaper in 1871 that boasted a thousand subscribers nationwide before winding down a few years later.
A charming spinoff, The Little Women Club (1905), by Marion Ames Taggart, a children’s book about four friends aged eleven to thirteen who decide to form a club and who enact the novel in their daily lives, seeded Little Women Clubs across the United States. The clubs became so popular that adults soon took notice and began taking control. Some clubs were created to preserve the Alcott homestead, Orchard House, transforming it into a house museum. Young settlement workers followed the trend, creating a Louisa M. Alcott Club for Jewish immigrants, which aimed to “instruct small girls in all branches of housekeeping.” There was an Alcott Club sponsored by Hull House in Chicago, and a San Francisco chapter of the Little Women Club that provided poor children with “practical and moral training” and a few weeks of country life under the care of settlement workers. Little Women Clubs became generally associated with mental cultivation, character development, and philanthropy.

In December of 1905, Rosamond Warren Gibson attended a Congregational church fair in Norwood, Massachusetts, which was sponsored by the “Mission Circle” and the “Little Women.” Rosamond was on the Committee of Arrangements. Cake and candy tables, a fancy table (featuring precious or whimsical handmade items for sale), and a photo and art table were all well patronized. Entertainment consisted of a cantata entitled Santa Clause’s Mistake, a dumbbell drill by two squads of girls, with piano accompaniment, and “a tambourine drill in Spanish costume by 12 young ladies.” Designed to promote mental cultivation, character development, and philanthropy, Little Women Clubs were an outgrowth of two important social trends spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the women’s club movement and the settlement house movement.

Along with other members of their affluent Boston social circle, Rosamond and her extended family devoted a large part of their lives to philanthropic work at all levels. It was an expectation of the Brahmin elite and a habit inculcated from childhood. As a young woman in Nahant in 1868, Rosamond joined a sewing circle of forty women called the “M. A.s,” or “Maiden Aunts,” that sewed for charity and met at one another’s houses every week—meetings that filled the women with sisterly esprit de corps. Rosamond eventually became president of the society, and the Maiden Aunts celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 1917.

While Rosamond and her daughters focused on supporting girls’ clubs in the Boston area, Charles, Jr. ("Charlie") took an early interest in boys’ clubs. In 1896 Charlie organized and participated in an amateur theatrical at Copley Hall “for the benefit of the Ellis Memorial Boys’ Club of Boston” and for the establishment of Patronages (similar to American boys’ clubs) in the south of France. According to the Boston Globe, Charlie was well established in the culture of amateur theatricals in Boston, beginning from when he was about ten years old, when he was cast in the play False Colors, taking the part of  the “negro boy” and likely performed in blackface. Regrettably, from a twenty-first century perspective, themes and imagery from blackface minstrelsy and ethnic theater were de rigueur in such productions, and the Boston circuit was no exception. The Globe reviewer continued, “Since that time, [Gibson] has appeared in many different parts, playing frequently in the theatricals given by the Nahant club. He is one of the prime movers in matters of this kind. He appears to best advantage in comedy.”

Throughout his literary career, Charlie championed American authors, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Mark Twain, and Louisa May Alcott. Soon after Clara Endicott Sears published Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands in 1915, which appended Louisa May Alcott’s satiric prose piece, Transcendental Wild Oats, she entertained seventy-five members of the Boston Authors’ Club at Fruitlands, her summer home in Harvard, Massachusetts. Among the honored guests were Mrs. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “who motored in from Cambridge,” and Charles Gibson. Fruitlands was the site of Bronson Alcott’s experimental utopian community of the 1840s. Sears purchased the property and outbuildings, transforming it into an important historical and cultural museum in the early twentieth century. As the Boston Globe reported in June of 1916, “After the luncheon, Miss Sears and her guests visited the Bronson Alcott House, which is on the grounds of ‘Fruitlands’ and which was so intimately connected with the late father of the late Louisa Alcott, the author of so many books for young people. One of the features of the occasion was the reading of an original sonnet by Mr. Charles Gibson, entitled ‘Fruitlands.’”

By the 1920s, Little Women Clubs had become a well-worn trope in American culture, linked to quaint domesticity and traditional femininity, values that were being challenged by feminism, women’s suffrage, and the emergence of the “new woman.” “Day-Dreams,” a humorous poem by Dorothy Parker, appeared in the Boston Globe in July of 1922. “We’d build a little bungalow,” the poem began, “If you and I were one, / And carefully we’d plan it, so / We’d get the morning sun.” The feminine narrator goes on to portray a life of rustic wedded bliss—but one which the poet, Parker, ironically undercuts, hinting about a less appealing reality: spoiled dinners, “black and dry”; burned fingers; scrubbing; cooking; and sewing. Parker seems to ask, “Little bungalow or stifling birdcage?” The poem concludes archly,

I’d buy a little scrubbing-brush

And beautify the floors;

I’d warble gaily as a thrush

About my little chores!

But though I’d cook and sew and scrub,

A higher life I’d find;

I’d join a little women’s club

And cultivate my mind.

- Todd S. Gernes, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Stonehill College)


  • Louisa May Alcott, Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Parts I and II (Boston: Little Brown, and Company, 1915 [1868 &1869]).
  • Beverly Lyon Clark, The Afterlife of Little Women (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).
  • Rosamond Warren Gibson (1846–1934), Recollections of My Life For My Children (privately printed at Meador Press, 1939).
  • Boston Globe, 1899–1922, accessed through, September–December, 2020.
  • Marion Ames Taggart, The Little Women Club (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1905).
  • Briana M. Spencer, “Material Girl: The Subjective Role of Objects in Dorothy Parker’s Poems and Short Stories” (MA Thesis, Department of English, University of North Carolina Wilmington, 2005).
  • Mehitable Calef Coppenhagen Wilson, John Gibson of Cambridge, Massachusetts and His Descendants, 1634–1899 (Mehitable C. C. Wilson, 1900).
  • San Francisco Examiner, 1900–1905, accessed through, September–December, 2020.

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