Published: June 18, 2002
CONCORD, MASS. – A new exhibition opening June 21 at the Concord Museum brings together 65 original illustrations by Frank Thayer Merrill for the 1880 Roberts Brothers edition of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The show runs through September 15.
These known surviving drawings, from the Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library and other lenders, represent about one-third of the 200 drawings published in the 1880 edition of the beloved classic. They serve to illuminate the interaction between Alcott and Merrill in the illustrative process. Some of the drawings include the author’s penciled comments giving editorial direction, as well as subsequent changes made by the illustrator.
The exhibition includes examples of the 1880 edition and the first (1868) edition of Little Women, together with examples of other works illustrated by Frank Merrill, including the first edition of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881) from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections as well as three rarely-exhibited costumes drawn from the Concord Museum collection dating from 1861, the setting of the novel, to 1880, the period of the Merrill illustrated edition. The costumes serve as an interesting foil to the costume decisions Merrill made in his drawings.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was the second daughter of Abby (1800-1877) and Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888). Bronson Alcott was a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and an integral member of the group of thinkers and writers known as the transcendentalists. The Alcott family lived, among other places, at Orchard House in Concord.
Louisa began writing as a teenager and saw her first book of stories (Flower Fables, for which she received $32) published when she was 22. Alcott’s stories were in demand from numerous illustrated weeklies during the 1860s, and she became, by persistence and ability, a professional writer.
Alcott wrote Little Women at the suggestion of Thomas Niles (1825-1894), a publisher who had joined the Boston firm Roberts Brothers in 1863. Encouraging Alcott to write a girl’s book was the brightest of many brilliant publishing ideas Niles had during his 30-year career. The first part of Little Women was published in October 1868 and was immediately a “hit,” 2,000 copies selling that month and 2,500 more by the end of the year. The popularity of the second part of Little Women, published in 1869, established the fame of the author and the prestige of her publisher. The first edition of Little Women had four illustrations supplied by the author’s sister May.
In 1876 Niles suggested an illustrated edition of Little Women modeled on a new illustrated edition of the works of Dickens. The edition that came out in 1880 was intended as a gift book, a type of book with lavish illustrations and decorated bindings issued to coincide with the Christmas season.
Many American publishers imported English gift books or produced their own; as early as the 1830s, Christmas revenues were an important part of the sales for booksellers. The 1880 Roberts Brothers edition was the most profusely illustrated edition in the author’s lifetime, with 200 wood engravings after drawings by Frank Merrill.
Frank Thayer Merrill (1848-1936) studied art at the Lowell Institute and at the Museum School in Boston and worked from a studio at 16 Tremlett Street in Dorchester. In a career spanning 50 years, Merrill provided thousands of illustrations for hundreds of books, most of them juvenile literature, including works by Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Longfellow, Haw-thorne and many others.
The Concord Museum is open Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm; Sunday, noon to 5 pm (Sundays in June, July and August, 9 am to 5 pm). The Concord Museum is at the intersection of Lexington Road and Cambridge Turnpike. For information, 978-369-9609 or visit www.concordmuseum.org.
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