Saturday, April 24, 2010


The book I will be examining in this paper is the popular title by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. This book was written as children’s fiction, and was a popular title in the nineteenth century. This is a first edition book, published in 1868. The book is located in the John Wilson Rare Book Room of the Multnomah County Library. The book was a gift to the collection from a W.B. Ayer. Ayer was prominent Portland community member. he served as the president of the Library Association of Portland and also found the Portland Art Association, and was a member of the Oregon Historical Society. Other accomplishments of Ayer include his formation of the Western Lumber Company in the 1890s, and serving as president of the Arlington Club in 1897 (Engeman).


Little Women was written in a period of great change for the United States. The Civil War had just ended only a few years prior, the industrial revolution in motion, and the women’s rights movement was in full swing. The book Little Women put the reader right into that time period. Within the book the reader finds a mother raising four daughters by herself because her husband is working in the military, a daughter determined to make her own life, to live by her own hand, not having to depend on a man, and a family dealing with poverty. There is also an undertone of good Christian values and morals which was popular at the time. This book provides a window in to the life of a good moral family of the nineteenth century.


Little Women was published in 1868 by Roberts Brothers publishing firm, which was located in Boston, Massachusetts. Roberts Brothers Publishing was one of the leading literary publishing firms in Boston from 1863-1898 (Charvat). Roberts Brothers Publishing initially started out in bookbinding in 1849. However the company failed in 1859 and was sold. Lewis Augustine Roberts established Roberts Brothers as a publishing firm in 1861 which specialized in photograph albums. In 1864, the firm established the name “Publishers and Booksellers and Manufacturers of Photograph Albums. “ Robert Brothers Publishing specialized in the publishing of poetry, translations of French literature, biographies, and of course books by, for and about women. Many well renowned authors published under Roberts Brothers, including Emily Dickinson, Edward Everett Hale, George Meredith, R.L. Stevenson, and Helen Hunt Jackson (Myerson). Roberts Brothers were also responsible for introducing authors such as Oscar Wilde, HonorĂ© de Balzac, and Christina Rosetti to the American public. Roberts Brothers lasted 35 years in the publishing industry, publishing many literary works. In 1898, the firm was absorbed by Little, Brown and Company (Winger).

Much of the success of the Roberts Brothers publishing firm was in correlation to Thomas Nile. He previously worked at the Old Corner Bookstore. While working there he made the acquaintance of several prominent figures in the writing and publishing world. Nile joined the firm in 1863 (Myerson). The beginning of the company’s success came in 1863, when Nile obtained the rights to the poems by the English poetess, Jean Ingelow, which turned out to be quite profitable for the firm (Winger). By 1872 he was made a partner in the firm (Myerson). It has been said that Nile was known as the “publishing genius” of the firm and that he was the “only Boston publisher who knew how to treat a lady (Winger).” Nile was a very important link in the chain of success for Roberts Brothers publishing. The firm only lasted four more years after Nile’s death when it was absorbed by Little, Brown and Company.

Thomas Nile was the man who asked Louisa May Alcott to write a book for women. Alcott and Nile created quite the professional relationship. It has been said that “Louisa May Alcott went from rags to riches” at the hands of Thomas Nile (Winger). When the book was in it beginning phase, Nile was the person who suggested the title, Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy: the Story of Their Lives. Eventually the title became Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in 1868 when the book was publish (Myerson).

The professional relationship between Louisa May Alcott and Roberts Brothers Publishing was “one of the most mutually profitable relationships in the nineteenth century.” The relationship lasted a total of 20 years when Alcott died in 1888. A total of 11 novel and 14 volumes of short stories were produced by Alcott under Roberts Brothers Publishing (Myerson). These works include Little Women, An Old Fashioned Girl, Jo’s Boys, and Little Men.
The presswork for Little Women was done by a printing company called John Wilson & Son. John Wilson & Son was created by John Wilson in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wilson was a printer, born in Glasgow Scotland, in 1802. He was a printer apprentice who moved to Boston, Massachusetts in 1846. The book was stereotyped by Innes & Regan.

The image above is the mark of Roberts Brothers Publications. This image was not found on the book being studied due to the fact that it was not developed until 1869.


Little Women was written by Louisa May Alcott. Alcott was born November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the second daughter of Bronson Alcott, and Abigail Alcott. In total, Alcott had three sisters. She began writing at the young age of sixteen.
At a young age, Alcott felt a pressure and responsibility to help provide for her family. She used her writing as a way to do this (Durbin). Much of Alcott’s writing career surrounded writing for newspapers and fugitive magazines. Before she gained recognition, it has been stated that “For fifteen years she was as near a complete failure as any writer could be.” Alcott was finally recognized by the nation as an author with the publication of Hospital Sketches in 1863. She volunteered as a military nurse during the Civil War. Hospital Sketches was created from the letters she wrote home from the military hospital in Georgetown (H.W. Wilson). By the time Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868, she was already an established writer, and had been published several times previously. Little Women was written quickly, and was the book that brought Alcott her fortune and recognition (Rollyson).

Little Women was a book based on a fictionalized version of the life of Alcott and her sisters. The main character, Jo, was reflective of Alcott herself. The struggles that Jo faced with her writing in Little Women imitated the struggles that Alcott faced herself in the profession (H.W. Wilson). The book was written in a very choppy fashion, dedicating at least one chapter to each of the sisters in the story. The story follows the characters through their lives, and focuses on the girls overcoming their personal flaws, Meg’s vanity, Jo’s temper, Amy’s spoiled nature, and Beth’s shyness. Little Women was popular across all audiences. So popular in fact, that Alcott wrote a sequel, called Little Women 2, or Good Wives a year later. Later on the two volumes were published as one book.

Alcott’s approach to writing Little Women was very pessimistic. Only with the constant encouragement and pressure from her publisher, Thomas Nile, was Alcott able to force herself to write a book in such a style. She made her distaste for this type of writing apparent in her journal. From her journal she was quoted about working on the book for Niles saying that she did not “enjoy this sort of thing,” due to the fact that she had never “liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” In a letter to Mary E. Channing after the book was released and had received praise, Alcott wrote “I had many doubts about the success of my first attempt at a girl’s book.” When faced with writing the sequel to the book, Alcott was not sure she had the stamina to write “another girl book (Myerson).” Alcott’s attitude was very similar to that of the character Jo. They were both writers, and both feminist by nature. You see this in the desire both Jo and Alcott had to provide for their families. You also see Alcott’s stubborn and feminist nature in her journal entry when she complains about the young girl writing her to ask about who will be married in the book, stating “as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life.” She went on to state “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone (Myerson).”

Alcott went on to write several more books. Many were offshoots of Little Women. These books included titles such as Little Men in 1871 and Jo’s Boys in 1886. Other unrelated titles written by Alcott included Lulu’s Library, Eight Cousins, Perilous Play, Rose in Bloom, and Under the Lilacs. “Most of Alcott's later books capitalized on the success of Little Women: they are stories about and for young people, tracing their development toward maturity and contrasting good, enlightened ways of child rearing with worldly, unnecessarily restrictive, insufficiently moral ones (Rogers).”

Despite Alcott’s successful career as an author, she lives a rather uneventful life. She died in Boston, on the day her father was buried, March 6, 1888.

Louisa May Alcott


Included within this book is a title page, publishing information, the table of contents, a preface, and 334 pages of story text divided into 23 chapters. There is an illustration present opposite the title page, as well as three other illustrations within the book. At the closing of the book there are 18 pages of randomly numbered advertisements by the book’s publisher. There is minimal decoration on the book. The cover is simple, stating the title Little Women by L.M. Alcott in gold lettering that is surrounded by a gold frame. The binding has similar decoration, stating the title of the book and the author again, and enclosing the text in a gold frame.

The title page of this book is very minimalistic. There are no borders or decoration present. It simply states the title of the book, the author, and the illustration. It is interesting to note that on the cover the title simply reads Little Women. However, within the book the title page shows the title to be Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The second part of the title is seen in a smaller type. Below the title you see the author’s name, Louisa M. Alcott, and below that in an even smaller font, the illustrators name, May Alcott. All the text on this page is done in capitals. The publishing information is stated on the back of the title page, in a very small font. The information includes the publisher, and the companies that did the presswork and the stereotyping. The table of contents is also a very plain in terms of decoration. It simply states “CONTENTS” at the top of the page. From there it goes on to list the chapters, stating the title, the chapter number in Roman numerals, and the page that the chapter begins on.

The chapters are each indicated by the word chapter typed in all capitals followed by the Roman numeral for the number chapter it is indicating. Each chapter of the book was given a title. These titles are seen below the chapter number in a smaller font. Each chapter begins with a larger capital for the first word, which is also written in all capitals.

As for page layout, this book is written in a single column of, of 34 lines on average. This number occasionally varies from page to page. The margins for the writing stop about a ¾ inch from the edge of the page. In the heading of verso side of the leaf, the page number is seen in the top left corner, and centered in the middle of the page in italics is the title of the book. On the recto side of the leaf, the page number is seen in the right corner, and centered in the middle of the page is the title of the chapter.


The preface of this book deserves special attention. The writing seen in the preface is adapted from John Bunyan. Bunyan was a religious writer who lived from 1628-1688 (H.W. Wilson). John Bunyan’s work Pilgrim’s Progress was very influential to Alcott. Within her own personal journals, Alcott would copy down favorite passages from the book. You also see the influence in Little Women, in which references are made to Bunyan’s work. Pilgrim’s Progress is a story about a man on a Christian journey. Within the story, religious lessons for the readers are provided. These lessons are taught to the March girls in Alcott’s Little Women (Graves).

Bunyan lived in a time when the English government had prohibited preaching. This was an attempt to stop new church from springing up. Bunyan refused to obey, and was put in prison from 1660-1670. It is believed by some that this is where Bunyan began writing Pilgrim’s Progress (HW Wilson). The piece in the preface that is adapted from John Bunyan states:

“Go then my little Book, and show to all
That entertain and bid thee welcome shall,
What thou dost keep close shut up in thy breast;
And wish that thou dost show them may be blest
To them for good, may make them choose to be
Pilgrims better, by far, then thee or me.
Tell them of mercy; is she one
Who early hath her pilgrimage begun.
Yea, let young damsels learn of her to prize
The world which is to come, and be so wise;
For little tripping maids may follow God
Along the ways which saintly feet have trod.”

This statement sets the tone for the book, and hints at the Christian undertone and subtext of the book.

John Bunyan


An interesting element to this book is the last 18 pages that are present. These pages have no connection to the book. These pages are in fact, ads for the Roberts Brothers publishing firm. The ads are promoting the writings of Jean Ingelow. As was stated before, Thomas Nile obtained the rights to the poems of Ingelow. These advertisements provide evidence of the publishing firm promoting other authors. The advertisements include the title of the work, a description, and the price. There is also often a short excerpt from the piece as well. Within the ads there is a section dedicated specifically to juvenile titles as well.

These pages in the back of the book do not have the same collation as the rest of the book. Page numbers in sequence with the rest of the book are not present on these pages. There are page numbers located at the bottom center of each page. However, these numbers are not in numerical order, but seem to be numbered randomly. This perhaps suggests that these advertisements were used in other materials as well, and added to the book once put together. At the top of each page centered, it reads Messrs. Roberts Brothers Publications. Although I did not come across any information regarding ads being added onto the final pages of books in this time period, I did come across several books from the early 20th century with similar advertisements included as well, which would indicated that this was a common practice.


Abigail May Alcott, know as May, was the Illustrator for this book. May was Louisa’s youngest sister. The character Amy, in Little Women, was modeled after May Alcott. There are four illustrations in this book. All four of these illustrations are in black and white, and are spaced throughout the book. Louisa May Alcott had anxiety about how the illustrations would turn out once the engraver transferred them into the book. She has been quoted having written that she hoped the engraver would not “spoil the pictures and make Meg cross-eyed, Beth with no nose, or Jo with a double chin (Myerson).” In the end, the illustrations turned out beautifully, and add an important visual element to the book.

The first image appears in the book before the story even begins. It is the first thing you see when you open the cover of the book and turn the first page. Before the reader sees the title page, or the table of contents, there is a beautiful image of Mrs. March with the four girls surrounding her. Underneath the picture is an excerpt from the book that states, “They all drew into the fire, Mother in the big chair, with Beth at her feet; Meg and Amy perched on either arm of the chair, and Jo leaning on the back.” This picture sets the mood for the book, and gives the reader insight to what the story will be about. Before the reader even begins the story, there is a connection established.

The next image that is present in the book is of Jo on page 117. In the image Jo is ice skating. This image provides a good visualization of the character of Jo through the clothes she is wearing, and the activity she is participating in. It also sets the character in the time period in which the story takes place. Below the image there is an excerpt that reads, “Keep near the shore; it isn’t safe in the middle,’ Jo heard, but Amy was just struggling to her feet, and did not catch the words.” This particular image hooks the reader, with the foreshadowing of the unsafe ice. It is possible that this is a tactic to hook the reader and keep them reading.

The next image in the book is of Meg on page 134. At this particular moment of the book, Meg is attending a fancy party called Vanity Fair. In the illustration you see Meg looking into the mirror admiring herself in the attire she is wearing. Under the image the excerpt reads, “For several minutes, she stood like the jackdaw in the fable, enjoying her borrowed plumes.” This is another image that gives great insight to the character. As stated before, the personal flaw Meg is trying to overcome throughout the story of Little Women is vanity. This illustration provides a visualization of Meg and her character, and what she is trying to overcome.

The final image in the book is of shy Beth running into her father’s arms on page 321. Again this image helps develop the character through visualization. Their father has finally come home from working in the military as a chaplain. This image projects the love the girls have for their father, and portrays how much he is missed in his absence. Not even shy Beth can resist running into his arms. Below the image the caption reads, “But it was too late; the study-door flew open, and Beth ran straight into her father’s arms.”

Steel engraving is most likely what was used in this book. Engraving is the process of chiseling and image of design in to a hard material, steel in this case. The process of steel engraving begins with the transfer of the illustration to the etching ground, and then being etched with the burin. Often a machine was used to etch the lines. “It might have been thought that after the introduction of acierage (steel facing) in the 1860s steel as an engraving surface would have been abandoned in favor of copper, but this does not seem to have happened in book illustration.” Steel engraving continued to be use through the end of the nineteenth century (Wakeman).


The binding of this book is bound in a cloth covered case binding. Within this binding there are 14 signatures that make up the book. This book has a green cloth, with gold stamping on the cover and spine, as was discussed previously. The decoration on this book’s cover is very minimalistic. However, there is a slight embossing of the fabric that outlines the edges of the book on the cover. The gold patterned around the title and author name are very small, measuring only 1 ½ inch in height. On the spine of the book at the top and bottom edges, there is an additional stamping of the same pattern that surrounds the title and author name.
Case binding was introduced in the 19th century as a way to reduce cost. Cloth was first applied to book cover in the United States in the 1830s. Cloth types and sizing had to be tested to ensure durability. It has been said that, “it was during the 19th century, more so than this century, that cloth book covers displayed the greatest amount of innovation.” Stamping also became popular in the 19th century. Stamping allowed for style diversity from book to book (Simone).

This particular copy of Little Women is an undersized book measuring 4 ¾ inches x 6 ½ inches. The book is in fairly good condition. There is a slight ripe in the page that holds the image of Jo skating. It has been mended with tape. There is also a brown discoloring on several pages throughout the book. Other than the occasional brown spot, the book is in fairly good condition. The pages are all present, and the binding seems to be holding up well.


This book is an amazing specimen of nineteenth century literature. It was a story that reached to the masses and continues to hold a place in society today. Louisa May Alcott was an author who touched the masses through her stories of the March family. Although this book is not the most ornamental example of the bindings used in the nineteenth century, it still displays the workmanship of binding in this time period and is a beautiful book to examine.

This is the cover from the illustrated version of Little Women.


Charvat, William (1953). Reviewed work(s): Messrs. Roberts Brothers Publishers. by Raymond L. Kilgour. American Literature, Vol. 25, No. 1. Pg. 122-123.

De Simone, Russell J. (2010) "Introduction to 19th-Century Bookbinding." Found at

Durbin, Deborah (1995). Little Women, Louisa May Alcott: About the Author.
University of Viginia. Found at

Engeman, Richard H. (2006). "The Jefferson Peace Medal Provenance and the Collections of the Oregon Historical Society." Oregon Historical Quarterly. Found at

Graves, Kerry A., L.M. Alcott (2000). The Girlhood Diary of Louisa May Alcott, 1843-1846:
Writings of a Young Author. Capstone Press. Pg. 21.

H.W. Wilson Company (2010). Bunyan, John. "British Authors Before 1800." Found at

Myerson, Joel; Shealy, Daniel (1990). "The Sales of Louisa May Alcott's Book." The Harvard Library Bulletin, Series Vol. 1, no. 1. pg. 47-52.

Rogers, Katherine M. (2000). “Alcott, Louisa May.” Found at American National Library

Rollyson, Carl (2000). Notable American Novelists: Vol. 1 Louisa May Alcott—John
. Salem Press Inc., Pg. 1-4.

Wakeman, Geoffrey (1973). Victorian Book Illustration A Technical Revoluation. Gale Research Company. Pg. 31-35

Winger, Howard (1957).Reviewed work(s): Estes and Lauriat, a History, 1872-1898 by Raymond L. Kilgour, Messrs. Roberts Brothers, Publishers by Raymond L. Kilgour. The Library Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4, Pg. 348-349.