"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)
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?
DISCLAIMER: AS ALWAYS, IF YOU NEED PSYCHOLOGICAL OR FINANCIAL ADVICE PLEASE SEEK A PROFESSIONAL FOR YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION.