An Alcott rag doll and embroidery by Abba Alcott, from the Fruitlands Museum Collection

Published July 11, 2021 by kitlat

Pre-pandemic, I visited Fruitlands.

It was sort of a funny story. We were actually on our way to an apple orchard in Phillipston, MA called the Red Apple Farm. For a few years when we made the drive, I felt I needed to recount how Bronson Alcott dragged poor Louisa and her siblings out to Harvard, MA to live in a utopian society he created along with a sourpuss of a man named Charles Lane, which would be the farm that we know as the Fruitlands and how well that went. (It really didn’t go so good.)

I also made a crack about how people outside of MA depending on where they come from think that Harvard, MA is where Harvard University is similar to people who think that Quincy Market is in the city of Quincy, MA. (While there is a Quincy Market in the city of Quincy, it’s a convenience store and not THE Quincy Market in the city of Boston, MA.) We were passing the signs for it and something grabbed me and I said: “Let’s go to Fruitlands.”

As we were driving there, I recognized we were going the right way because of the descriptions in the accounts written by people who had visited. We parked and went down the hill to pay admission and get a guide to the lay of the land, although a lot of it was what I thought it was.

I actually could see Louisa May Alcott and her siblings (and I guess Lane’s son William if he were allowed), having fun on the lands; rolling down hills. On the site they have things that children in this period would have played with: a wooden hoop, dancing man and the like. It was neat to see the children that were there play with them. Some were very good and some were good for a 1st try.

I remember looking at where the girls would sleep and while not being entirely surprised, I remembered thinking that anyone thinking that girls were weak, needed to grow up here. I also felt my contempt for Bronson Alcott rise as I saw the kitchen that poor Abba, his wife had to contend with. Granted, in many ways it was what many other women had to deal with, but keep in mind, the Fruitlands also had visitors that had tea and dinner. Not to mention, the few people who added to their number over time. And granted, many of them left but still Abba was the female workhouse who was in charge of the domestic affairs. And she had to manage within the restrictions that the society placed on itself including what they could eat and what they could use.

I liked finding out that there was a sort of afterlife for the location once the Lanes and the Alcotts left. Joseph Palmer, who was called “Beard Palmer” by Abba Alcott, was a member of the farm and an actual farmer. (Bronson grew up in a farming family and there are several accounts of him putting in gardens and performing tasks that you’d expect farmers to know how to do. However he was clearly interested in farming and cultivating a different sort of crop.) Palmer decided to use the site as a refuge for former reformers and so it went for about 20 years-19 years longer than the consociate family experiment. The property was purchased in 1910 by Clara Endicott Sears, who opened the farmhouse to the public in 1914 as a museum. I found out that no, she’s not related to the Sears family that founded Sears and Roebuck.

The Fruitlands is managed by the Trustees of Reservations, which also takes care of the wildlife around the property. They also hosts some events there. There is also an art museum. It is at this museum that the exhibition listed below is held on the Fruitlands property. When I went, they had an exhibition on furniture-I believe it was had to do with how Shaker furniture design influenced future furniture design trends.

The Naughty Aughties was the heyday of history reality shows where they took a family/several families and placed them in a period where they had to live just as they did in the past for anywhere from a month to 3 months. Many of them had mixed since usually it was the women in the family that really wanted to do it and though prepared by historians, really underestimated the amount of work that went into daily living and how much of it would fall on the women to do. They also underestimated how restricted their lives were would be including not having the kinds of rights (voting, the ability to get a divorce or enter into legal contracts, etc).

I almost wish they would do one based on the Fruitlands experience. I would almost that rather than use families, that they use period historians/scholars as was done for the Tudor/Victorian/Edwardian/WWII Farm series. These are people that know full well what they are getting into. They can provide insight into aspects that some of the regular families could not. They also wouldn’t be bringing family baggage with them that can get in the way of the show.

I also kind of wish they would’ve had Giles and Sue do this, especially get their take on the diet that they developed and followed. Especially considering that the philosophy that the Fruitlands experiment was founded on had a fandom of sorts in England. There was an Alcott House there, devoted to these teachings. Still, this is an American phenomenon. It would’ve been interesting to see how it meshed up against the movements that were taking place in Victorian England.

Since things are reopening and as I am vaccinated, I will try to make it to the exhibit listed below. I would be paying another visit to Fruitlands anyway, but now I have an extra incentive.

Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

I went to Fruitlands today with my sister to visit the art museum and happened across these interesting items:

Rag doll presumably owned by the Alcott Daughters, ca. 1840
This simple and well-loved doll made from rags was likely owned by the Alcott sisters. The wear of the fabric implies many hours of play.
Fruitlands Museum Collection, The Trustees.

Attributed to Abigail Alcott
American, 1800-1877
Embroidered wreath with bird
ca. 1810-1840
Silk, linen, wool
Fruitlands Museums Collection, The Trustees

Apparently May was not the only one with artistic talent!

Another item in this collection was a black vest belonging to Bronson. Unfortunately I did not get a picture of it. But it did show how slight of build he was despite his height.

These items, along with an art exhibit, will be available for viewing until August 22nd, 2021

p.s. Good News! The Fruitlands House will open up in the…

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