In 1870 Louisa May Alcott penned her mother, begging her to stop forwarding letters from “rampant infants,” the author’s endearing term for her fans. Despite her literary acclaim, life had been hard on Louisa, and at only 38 years old, she had fled the country to Switzerland in an attempt to regain her health.
The barrage of fan mail started just as the first issue of Little Women was still hot off the press. Young girls were dying to know if there would be a sequel and how much of the book was based on real life? The story of the bold and resilient March family had captured the heart of America, but underneath was a tale even more extraordinary and complicated than the book.
For the few who aren’t familiar with Little Women, the story follows the March family during the Civil-War era as the four daughters, Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth, grow up and come into their own.
The book highlights struggles with friendship, family, love, and independence in a way that is not only timeless, but also endearing. Everyone falls in love with the March girls, and most can see bits of themselves reflected in the characters.
Louisa grew up with three sisters, so it wasn’t too far of a jump to assume the March family was based on her own. The author admitted they had indeed inspired the characters of Little Women, but the book failed to cover some of the more interesting details.
Portrait of Louisa May Alcott
Born in 1832 to Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail “Abba” Alcott, Louisa May was the second oldest of four sisters. But before she was even a twinkle in her parent’s eyes, her father led a wild life of his own.
Portrait of Abigail and Amos Alcott
Amos would be best described as an ambitious romantic. He left home early to become a Yankee peddler, which was a traveling salesman of sorts. Unfortunately, sales wasn’t his calling, and he soon found himself in debt — a plague that would follow him throughout his life.
The Yankee Pedlar, 1872 by Thomas Waterman Wood
Despite his mismanagement with money, the bright, idealistic young man attracted the attention of Abba who came from a relatively wealthy and socially prestigious family. The two were married by 1830.
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Abba fell in love with Amos’ passion for education and social justice, and she was loyal to him and his mission. Where Amos was idealistic, Abba was pragmatic, and this balanced the couple out… for a while at least.
Laura Dern as Marmee via Columbia Pictures
When her husband’s schools failed because of his progressive teaching practices, Abba stood by his side. When he fought backlash from parents after admitting a black student into his school in Boston, she remained an adamant supporter.
It went on this way for many of Amos’ ventures. Even as he adopted Transcendentalism — an emerging philosophy that focused on the inherent goodness of people and nature — Abba went along with him on a new venture that would drive their family to a near breaking point.
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich
In 1843, Amos moved his family to Harvard, Massachusetts, to start a Utopian commune that supported his ideals. He called it Fruitlands, and in time, the experience would serve as inspiration for one of Louisa’s satires, Transcendental Wild Oats.
The farmhouse at Fruitlands
The commune failed miserably. Amos knew nothing about farming, and the family nearly starved. After only eight months, Fruitlands folded, and the family slunk back to Concord, though they never quite recovered from the familial trauma of the experience.
In her writing, Louisa framed her father as a man with dreams the world just wasn’t prepared for. “Those who attempted to found [Utopia] just got laughed at for her pains.” Off the page, Louisa was far more disturbed by her father’s inability to provide for the family.
Even after the Fruitlands disaster the family struggled with money. Abba was forced help pick up the slack, and she actually became one of the first professional social workers. Louisa and all her sisters took up work as governesses and teachers.
It was clear that while much of the family’s eccentric life influenced Louisa and her sisters, nothing shaped and drove them more than their unremitting poverty. This struggle even transformed the way the girls were portrayed in Little Women.
New York Times
Meg was based on Louisa’s oldest sister Anna who was actually a gifted actor. In her diary Anna wrote, “I have a foolish wish to be something great, and I shall probably spend my life in a kitchen and die in the poor-house.” She felt marriage was her only escape.
Portrait of Anna Bronson Alcott Pratt
Beth, who died in the book from illness, was based on Louisa’s sister Lizzie, who died from Scarlet Fever. Little is known about Lizzie, but the loss completely devastated the Alcott family. Beth’s character serves as a tribute to her.
Illustration from Little Women, 1869. Courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard University. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Jo, who is based off Lousia herself, had all the gumption and strong-will of her creator. However, Louisa found literary success before Little Woman with poems and short stories. It was only after pressure from her publisher that she caved and agreed to write a book for girls.
Louisa thought a book about girls’ daily toils would be boring. “[I] Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” She ended up drafting the first version of Little Women in just a few weeks.
Alythia Brown vis Medium
With her success, Louisa could provide financial assistance to her youngest sister May — Amy in the book — so that she could study art. May went on to become a successful painter in Europe and fought for other impoverished women in the arts.
Though Louisa will always be known for Little Women, her writing about feminism and philosophy — what she was really passionate about — never gained footing. And though successful in her lifetime, her years of poverty and hard labor ruined her health.
The beloved author never fully recuperated. Through looking after her niece and namesake after her sister May passed away, along with her literary works, Louisa was still able to hand down her passion and her extraordinary tale of life.
It’s hard to think of a cultural artifact as steeped in nostalgia as the books we read when we were young. Everyone remembers the stories they held nearest and dearest as children. Oftentimes, though, we come to realize that nobody, not even our favorite authors, are completely innocent.
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Written by bonafide pioneer woman Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books holds a special place in the hearts many American families. However, the life of the author herself is not at all suitable for kids.
Etsy – RedDirtDogsVintage
The Ingalls family moved around quite a bit. By the time she was fifteen, Laura had already lived in five different states. She had also already experienced quite a bit of tragedy for someone so young.
Laura’s older sister Mary contracted scarlet fever and went blind. After this, Laura had to care for her. In addition, the girls had a younger brother, Charles, who died in infancy. It seemed the Ingalls family was marked for tragedy.
Laura received her first teaching job at 15, around the same time she met Almanzo Wilder. Although he was ten years older, Ingalls was enamored. They wed three years later, looking to a future they couldn’t know would be mired in catastrophe.
Almanzo and Laura (or Beth, as he called her — he had a sister named Laura), had their first child, Rose, in 1886. Rose would grow up to play a controversial role in her mother’s life. However their second child was a different story.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
Rose’s little brother was doomed to suffer a fate similar to Charles’. After living for only 12 short days, the yet-to-be-named baby passed away. Soon, Almanzo would experience some devastating health problems of his own.
After a particularly debhilitating bout of diptheria, Almanzo was left partially paralyzed and unable to farm for the family’s livelihood. As if their string of bad luck wasn’t long enough, shortly after this, their daughter Rose made a mistake that changed the family’s lives forever.
Old Photo Archive
Left alone in the kitchen at only three years old, Rose attempted to help her mother by adding firewood to the stove. Tragically, this would set a fire that nearly killed the girl and her mother, and ultimately burned their house to the ground.
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In a 1926 Cosmopolitan article, Rose revealed she still struggled with guilt over the incident. Additionally, she confessed that her childhood felt like a nightmare; she had to endure extreme poverty and malnutrition. Despite this, she remained close with her mother — some say a little too close.
Rose Wilder was a writer, just like mom. In fact, she actually gained commercial success before Laura’s famous Little House series ever saw the light of day. Artistic collaboration between the mother-daughter pair has led to quite a bit of controversy.
See, it is suspected in some literary circles that Rose was actually the ghostwriter behind the books that made her mother famous. And although Ingall’s artistic legacy persists today, recently some dark allegations have come to light.
In 2018, an award for excellency in children’s literature previously called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award underwent a name change. The association of librarians who created the honor decided to remove Wilder’s name, and their reasoning reveals something deeply sinister about the author.
The reason for the new nomenclature was that Wilder’s books have been criticized in the modern day for their racist content. The writer has been accused of saying dehumanizing and downright vitriolic things about both black people and Native Americans.
An opening line to one of the chapters in Little House on The Big Prairie is particularly unsettling. It describes an area where there were “no people. Only Indians.” This dehumanization encompasses in a nutshell some of the more problematic aspects of Ingall’s work.
YouTube – Reading With Beverley Volfie
Another phrase that caused the committee in charge of the award to change its name was the obviously racist line, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Some critics argue that Wilder was merely a product of her time, but the librarians decided they needed to cut ties.
Etsy – OnNancysWings
Despite well-founded allegations of racism, Wilder’s legacy has remained a huge influence on American children ever since its first publication in 1935. It even led to a TV series of the same name — a show that was also not without mishap and controversy.
Alison Arngrim, the actress who played the show’s antagonist Nellie, was put through a great deal of physical trauma. Extremely high temperatures on set once caused her to faint from exhaustion, and her signature blond wig was so tight that it made her scalp bleed.
In one iconic episode, Arngrim’s character was sent throttling down a hill while confined to a wheelchair. The actress’s screams were so convincing because they were real! Seconds before filming, a crew member yelled that the rope securing her chair had broken, causing Arngrim to cry out in fear.
Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura herself, was also subjected to some less than appropriate circumstances. In one episode she shared an onscreen smooch with her costar, Dean Butler. The messed up part? He was 23, and she was only 15. It was the actress’s first kiss.
Michael Landon did more than play Pa Ingalls. He was also an executive producer, writer, and director for the series. When actress Karen Grassle auditioned for the role of Ma under her stage name, Gabriel Tree, Landon requested she drop it and use her real name.
All the hearty meals that Ma worked tirelessly over in the scenes were actually one food: Dinty Moore beef stew. The one exception? In an episode where Ma fried chicken, they used KFC.
Before Draco Malfoy and Joffrey there was the original blonde spoiled brat: Nellie Oleson. Serious credit must be paid to child actors Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim for their convincing animosity, particularly since they were real life BFFs!
It’s hard to separate her from her perfect portrayal of Nellie, but before she embodied the utterly nasty character, she auditioned for both Laura and Mary Ingalls. Luckily for the fans, she was rejected.
By the time Michael Landon landed in Charles ‘Pa’ Ingall’s boots, he was already famous thanks to the hit show Bonanza. So when Little House began, he got to call the shots. Michael envisioned Charles with a certain swagger, which included 4-inch lifts in his boots so he was the tallest on set…
He also wasn’t shy about Pa flashing some skin. Michael reportedly enjoyed filming shirtless scenes to show off his physique. On occasion, he was even known to skip wearing undergarments with his costumes.
Before the Olsen Twins, there was another adorable identical TV duo: Rachel and Sidney Bush. Together, the twins shared the part of Carrie Ingalls. California labor laws required the director to rotate between the three-year-old girls every few hours.
Little House Wikia
Working with kids led to countless hilarious unintentional mistakes captured on film. During the opening credits, Carrie Ingalls trips while running down a hill. That was a real tumble! The director thought it was cute, and chose to keep in.
Melissa was a natural fit for the tough, can-do character, Laura “Half-Pint” Ingalls: In the storyline when Laura learns to drive a stagecoach, Melissa actually trained to do so in real life. She jumped on the opportunity to experience the authentic pioneer lifestyle.
Michael starred in the smash hit Bonanza right before beginning the Little House series: He carried over a lot from his previous show — including the scripts. Bonanza’s “A Matter of Circumstance” episode was repurposed and made into “A Matter of Faith” on Little House.
The cast and crew were known to partake in a bit of drinking, and crushed over two cases of Coors most days on set. Sometimes Wild Turkey was in the mix. All the debauchery took place during the child actors’ nap times.
The show was actually filmed in Simi Valley, California: Big Sky Ranch served as the set for most of the series, and unbeknownst to the crew, it was also a former disposal site for radioactive materials. Some blame the radioactivity for high cancer rates amongst the production team.
Julian Price / Flickr
Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary Ingalls, didn’t bond with the rest of the cast. Her mother kept a protective watch over her, which alienated her from the group. Even though Laura and Mary were close-knit sisters onscreen, Melissa Gilbert said her costar was conceited.
The closeness between Laura and Pa was real: Michael was a father figure to Melissa. Her own father died when she was just 11, so she spent many weekends at the Landon house and adored his wife and children.
That bond didn’t last: Michael had an affair with a makeup artist on set, which resulted in a divorce from his wife Cheryl. Melissa took her side and stopped associating with the actor off the set.
The fireworks were real: In the series finale, the townspeople of Walnut Grove enact some revenge on the land-grabbers taking the city for their own when they rig dynamite and blow all the buildings to smithereens. Well, those explosions were real! They used footage of the actual sets being demolished.