Louisa May Alcott’s First Creative Dollar

"I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day.” - Louisa May Alcott

Welcome to the first of many posts about historical financial struggles and triumphs. Most importantly, I hope this series offers internal lessons that can be taken away from artistic efforts to make money from creativity throughout time.

I immensely look forward to researching my favorite authors, dancers, musicians, actors, artists, and inventors along with the first time they were paid for their work. 

Let’s start with an author whose book I toted around as a little girl. I would carry around Little Woman as an elementary student, hoping the people I encountered believed I was reading it. 

Of course, I was not capable of reading it, and even if I were, I didn’t have the life experience to understand it. But I wanted to absorb the energy of Louisa May Alcott and the four women on the cover.

Only with age would I begin to understand the androgenous, independent, and humble energy of this author (and how the stories of the fictional women on the cover stemmed from her real-life experiences). 

Louisa May Alcott's First Creative Dollar

The Amount: $35 (around $1,035 in today’s money)

The Project: Flower Fables (published on December 9th, 1854 by Boston publisher George Briggs)

The Backstory

Louisa May Alcott’s first published book was a collection of whimsical stories originally written for her young neighbor Ellen Emerson (born in 1839, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson). 

I did not realize how close together many of the Transcendentalist writers lived. Imagine all of these fantastic minds existing as neighbors, interacting with one another’s children, pressing flowers for each other, and buying each other’s property (Nathaniel Hawthorn eventually bought the Alcott residence). 

They even investigated one another’s deaths (Emersen sent Thoreau to the shore where Margaret Fuller’s ship parished). Aside from such dramatic events, I like to imagine them existing daily with typical domestic tasks and no comprehension of the lasting impact they would have on American literature and worldly thought.

The Alcott’s were not stable in this neighborly scene, however. They moved upwards of 30 times.

Financial struggles caused Louisa to support her family at a young age. She worked as a governess (fancy name for an in-house teacher), a seamstress, a domestic worker (maid, secretary, and nanny), and the job we know her best for - a writer.

Like many writers, earlier on, she went under a pen name. A.M. Barnard was an androgenous pseudonym used for sassy thrillers about revenge, spying, and women’s power.

Little Women and a Surprising End to Financial Struggles

If you really love the story Little Women, you may be disappointed to learn that Louisa May Alcott wrote it purely for money and had little artistic attachment to it.

When her publisher asked her to write a story about girls, she threw together the first part of the story in about six weeks, all in an effort to pay off her family’s debts. 

In one quote, Louisa claimed to feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body. She said she didn’t like writing about girls or girl issues. In an attempt to make up a quick story, she didn’t search too far. She just looked around at the life of her and her sisters. 

When she first dropped off the manuscript, she wanted to sell it for $100 on the spot. Luckily for her, $100 wasn’t available that day and she signed up for royalties.

The book sold out its 2,000 copies for $1.50 each almost immediately. She was shocked to go into town a few months later to visit her publisher’s office and find it in chaos from the sales of her book. (At first, she thought the place was in chaos from going bankrupt.) On the contrary, she received a check that day that changed her life forever while finally getting her family of origin out of poverty.

Not surprisingly, Alcott never married and was not comfortable being famous. In the future, when admirers came to visit her in her nice home, she acted as a servant to dodge them.

Does anything surprise you about Louisa’s story? Who would you like to hear about next? Do you have a story about your first creative dollar?



10 Replies to “Louisa May Alcott’s First Creative Dollar”

    1. Thank you so much! That is motivating to hear! They take more work to put together but they are totally worth it. Let me know if there is ever a person you would like to learn more about!

    1. I agree! As always while working on these, I wonder if creative money was made by her before but in smaller amounts that were never reported? Or not significant enough to historically write about? It’s hard to tell with the simple internet research I am doing.

  1. my old friend used to be an executive chef at a fine dining place in concord, mass. i went there but it was so long ago (1992) that i don’t remember much about it. that’s great she went for the royalties. that’s a smart move as we’ve discussed before, to keep control and ownership of the work if you can afford it. i guess you never know when you might find your passionate fan base.

    1. I hope to visit too someday to make the blog and Instagram account work together – that’s the dream, right? I hope to actually visit some of these author’s and inventor’s homes! Get some photos for myself!

      Learning about the haphazard happenings that lead to her signing up for royalties was fascinating. There are all kinds of odd twists and turns that happen in creative people’s lives – making a ton of difference with their eventual finances. Sometimes it’s tragic and sometimes it’s striking gold.

  2. That’s unfortunate that she wrote ‘Little Women’ strictly for financial purposes with other type of motivation to do it. But it turns out to be one of the best read novels ever and has I think about 6 or 7 film adaptions with the latest one last year.
    Looking forward to reading more of this series you’re going to have. I’m kind of interested in George Orwell (aka Eric Blair). Reading ‘Animal Farm’ when I was in grade school was one of the memorable books for me at the time.

    1. It’s amazing what works become popular and which ones are actually important to an author. The more I learned about her and her androgynous nature (never marrying, never having kids), the more it made sense that a book like Little Women could pop out of the side of her head without major effort or consideration. I still think it’s brilliant, but it probably was just an afterthought for her.

      I will have to look into George Orwell (including why he changed his name). That would be fascinating to learn about. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. I’ve absolutely loved reading her books as a child.

    It’s crazy to think that she was willing to get paid only $100, for a book that is now a classic. Honestly, she’s really lucky that she signed up for royalties that day. Her life would be really different if she didn’t. Just goes to show, how one small move can change your life path.

    Thanks for sharing. Going to be reading your other “creative dollar” stories.

    1. Thank you for stopping by the blog.

      It is a wild story! I look forward to digging more into the lives of creative people like this. Thank you for the encouragement.

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