Researching for Film: How Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ reinterprets the novel’s little-known print history
A behind-the-scenes researcher’s guide to consulting on the Oscar-nominated film “Little Women”
In the fall of 2018, I had the opportunity to provide historical consultation and research for Greta Gerwig adaptation of “Little Women,” which filmed in the Boston area. [Note: Spoilers for both book and film follow.]
My research for LW focused on the film’s climax, the first printing of “Little Women.” In the scene, Jo March eagerly watches as the printing press creates the first copy of her life’s work. It’s a beautiful scene, energetic and rich in visual detail. It’s also where the two narratives — the classic plot of LW and the life of author Louisa May Alcott — come together to form Gerwig’s own unique interpretation of the novel and help distinguish it from the beloved 1994 film version. But what would this scene actually look like in Alcott’s universe? During filming, production reached out to Truly*Adventurous, who then in turn contacted me with this query.
The 1868 novel’s publication history is readily available to literary scholars and LW enthusiasts. The March sisters wouldn’t get their happily-ever-afters (or goodbyes in Beth’s case) until the book’s sequel Part Two, which is often combined into one text for readers, so often that many are unaware they’re reading two books in one. In order to visually create this scene, the 2019 film’s production team needed to understand the genesis of the physical book and period details about its first printing in 1868 (Part One only) — information not so easily found. That’s where historical consultants — myself and no doubt others — came in. How was the novel actually printed and by whom? Where did the printing take place? What was the mechanism of printing and what might the process have entailed? And the book itself, what did it look like? In essence, how would the new LW interpret the tactile history of the book itself?
So here’s a brief account of my research into LW’s publication and printing histories, as well as some info on how Gerwig’s interpretation intersects and reimagines this history.
I. THE PUBLISHER: Messrs. Roberts Brothers
In 2019’s LW, Gerwig artfully blends the novel’s key plot points — those same ones often hit upon in various film adaptations — with details from Alcott’s life. Scenes like the book printing climax comprise a blend of fact, fiction, and Gerwig’s own interpretation. The film doesn’t prioritize historical accuracy over narrative.
In the film, LW is published by Volcano Press out of New York City. This follows cues from the book in which Mr. Dashwood of the “Weekly Volcano” publishes Jo’s writing. Whether following Jo’s or Alcott’s journey, the film’s production team wanted to know whether whomever published LW did the book printing on-site at the publisher’s office or elsewhere? Essentially, where was the actual book made?
The book was actually published by Messrs. Roberts Brothers (1857–1898.) Raymond L. Kilgour’s 1952 text Messrs. Roberts Brothers offers a more detailed history of the Boston-based publisher. Established in 1857 by Austin J. Roberts, John F. Roberts, and Lewis A. Roberts, the publisher/bookbinder would go on to publish Alcott and other notable authors.
Rather than Jo’s NYC, Alcott found her publisher in downtown Boston. As Kilgour explains, Messr. Roberts Brothers publishing house stood in the heart of Boston’s once-thriving publishing district. Located on the second floor of 143 Washington St., it was directly across from the famous Old South Meeting House after a brief time down the street at 149 Washington St. The small firm published the likes of Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Julia Ward Howe and George Sand, to name a few.
“The year which saw the publication of the first part of Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, was indeed a climactic one for the new house, since she guaranteed, as no other author on their list, the continuing success of RB, and with her advent began one of the most warm and satisfactory relationships between publisher and author in the history of American publishing,” writes Kilgour. Alcott not only added her name to the list of literary greats, she also single-handedly put her publisher on the map.
As with Jo’s character in the book and film, Alcott wrote professionally from an early age, 16 or so, working in various capacities to contribute to her family’s meager income “with grim determination” as Kilgour puts it. Likewise in the latest LW, Jo gets her short stories and fantastical tales published and sends her meager earnings home.
The film presents the genesis of LW in much the same spirit as the actual history with the book’s fictional Mr. Dashwood standing in for Thomas Niles, partner at Roberts Brothers publishers, who requested Alcott try her hand at a “girls book.” Alcott submitted her draft with little expectation or fanfare. While the pages left Niles uninspired, he found that his niece Lily Almy and other young women in his sphere were utterly taken with the story. To this, Alcott would write in her notes, “As it is for them, they are the best critics, so I should be satisfied.”
As the story goes, Niles offered a lump sum of $1,000 but advised her to keep the copyright instead. Here is where Gerwig’s LW employs artistic license by reversing these details for the Jo/Alcott meta-plot. Instead, she has Jo negotiate the copyright from her publisher and editor, a reluctant Mr. Dashwood. In reality, Alcott took Niles’s sage advice to keep the copyright, and thanks to a stellar book and bit of luck, the decision made her a good living and solid career. While the film puts a dramatic, feminist-forward twist on the copyright issue with a lively negotiation scene, the relations between Alcott and her publishers were actually exceedingly positive. [Interestingly, the New York Times seems confused by the blurring of fact and fiction here, suggesting that it was Alcott’s idea to negotiate for copyright as depicted in the film.] In an 1885 journal entry, Alcott writes on the topic: “An honest publisher and a lucky author, for the copyright made her fortune, and the ‘dull book’ was the first golden egg of the ugly duckling.”
As for the ugly duckling’s own feelings towards the book, Alcott wrote LW was: “Simple and true, for we really lived most of it.”
Advertised as a “delightful book” under its full title Little Women; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, the Story of their Lives, the book was released in October 1868, selling 2,000 copies, followed by 1000 more in November and by year’s end 4500 copies had been sold in total.
Alcott was asked to tie up the loose ends and dangling questions about the March girls in a sequel that she wrote in six weeks. As echoed by Jo in the 2019 film, Alcott did in fact famously declare, “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”
II. THE PRESS: University Press in Harvard Square
But who actually printed the first copy of Little Women? A search into the firm’s printing contracts reveal three possibilities among Boston area printers: Welch, Bigelow and Co., the University Press in Cambridge owned by John Wilson and Son, and Riverside Press. While many false “first editions” of LW exist, a true first edition provides the answer: “Presswork by John Wilson and Son.” It also provides info about the copying process, stating: “Stereotyped by Innes & Regan, 55 Water Street, Boston.”
During this time under John Wilson’s expertise and direction, University Press had made a name as one of the leading and most technologically advanced printers in the U.S. While LW was printed in the Boston area, the precise location is slightly more confusing. John Wilson had actually taken over the former site of Welch, Bigelow printers. In 1865, immediately after Welch, Bigelow and Company switched locations, John Wilson and Son, printers, moved out of Boston and took over Welch’s spot at Holyoke Street in Harvard Square, Cambridge. It turns out local literary buffs could fill a solid leg of a walking tour by just visiting Alcott-related sites in Boston, Cambridge, and of course Concord.
Alcott would have found the press nestled quietly among the brick and ivy of Harvard University campus. A paper presented by Norman Hill White, Jr. during a 1920 Cambridge Historical Society offers some more structural detail of the printer’s shop, describing the press as “a three-story frame building situated on Holyoke Street [..] The building ran south upon Holyoke Street, leaving only an alleyway between that building which is now the Catholic Church and the southern end. On the northern side, an ell ran from east to west forming between the two divisions a courtyard. Entrance was gained by means of a driveway through the building into the courtyard beyond.” The exact address is also little confusing. White notes that the site later became home to one of Harvard’s Final Clubs, The Spee; however, since he was speaking in 1920 and not of the club’s current home on Mt. Auburn St., he actually referred to its previous location on Holyoke St, making the approximate address of University Press 15 Holyoke Street, which is now encompassed by the current Harvard University Smith Campus Center. The “Catholic Church” refers to St. Paul Church (currently at the corner of Bow and Arrow Streets), but again, at its previous location, on Holyoke Street.
III. THE PROCESS: Stereotyping & Cylinder Presses
The first edition notes the book was stereotyped by Innes & Regan, 55 Water Street, Boston, close to the publishers Roberts Brothers. Wilson likely had it stereotyped to save time, especially if they thought it might do well and require reprinting, which of course, it did. In layman’s terms (Wikipedia), stereotyping is: “In printing, a stereotype, also known as a cliché, stereoplate or simply a stereo, was a solid plate of type metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould (called a flong) taken from the surface of a forme of type used for printing instead of the original. By creating a stereotype, a printer could easily reprint documents and free her or his equipment for other work.” For a deep-dive into the stereotyping and printing scene in Boston during this era, check out the 1923 papers of The Boston Typographical Union.
As far as the press itself, it’s difficult to know the exact type of press Wilson used in his shop. Welch, Bigelow and Company (the printer from whom Wilson later took the space) had started using an imported French two-cylinder press in 1865 (three years prior to LW’s publication), one of the first used in this country. The firm’s partner Marshall Bigelow was the trained printer on staff and managed the actual presswork and composition. Welch-Bigelow printer had been housed in the middle of Cambridge’s Harvard Square at the same site as “Brattle House,” originally built as a hotel for Harvard affiliates. The bulk of their work was for famed Boston publishers Ticknor & Fields, but they did work for Roberts Brothers too.
So it’s entirely possible that John Wilson and Son were also using a two-cylinder press by 1868. Later in 1895, Wilson’s press moved into a brick building along the Charles River. According to Arthur Gilman’s The Cambridge of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-six, the 1895 press was the “first in New England to introduce individual electric motors for power for each separate press or machine,” which is not entirely helpful for knowing what type of press they used for LW in 1869. However, a clue in the footnote reads: “This is but in keeping with its previous history as the first Adams and the first Hoe stop cylinder presses made in this country were used by the University Press (another name for Wilson Press). The process of electrotyping early superseded the old system of stereotyping at the University Press and has here been brought to its highest state of perfection.” This indicates that at some point before, Wilson had utilized Adams or Hoe stop cylinder presses, which aligns with LW’s timeline somewhat, being around the mid 1800s. This type of press developed from the French La Press Dutartre, a stop cylinder press, and as stated, the previous printer onsite Welch-Bigelow had utilized a French machine. All of this indicates that Wilson most likely employed a one or two cylinder machine, as in keeping with Boston presses at this time.
Since these period machines aren’t easily replicated and more likely found in a museum, LW producers set out to find any Civil War-era presses in New England. The search led them to Portland-based master printer and collector of antique presses David Wolfe, who gave them several options for use in filming, including the press they ultimately settled on — an acorn-shaped iron hand press built by Otis Tufts and manufactured in Worcester, Massachusetts.
IV. THE FIRST PRINT: $1.25
At this time, it was standard practice for publishers to do the word counts and page estimates and sizing. Prior to the press, they suggested typefaces. At Robert Brothers, Thomas Niles took exceptional care regarding the book design and covers of the books and often insisted on using original woodblocks for smaller editions. In this era, the presses and publishers acquired most of the paper from Tileston and Hollingsworth Company, and glazed paper from S.D. Warren and Co. of Boston.
For the visual composition of the actual book itself, one need only consult The Bibliography of American Literature, often used to verify true first editions. It offers detailed information about the pages, size, color, advertisements, and price, of the various printings. An authentic first edition (only Part One) has roughly 342 pages, and cover cloth of “green, purple, terra-cotta and Brown-coated end papers.” While later printings advertise Part Two (the conclusion of the story as many readers know it), the first printing did not include this as Alcott had not yet written Part Two and had no idea of the success that would follow. The original print had a list price of $1.25. Not all 1868 copies are first printings and as the Bibliography notes “Attempts have been made to forge both the title-page and the binding of Little Women, 1868. An example of the forgery has been deposited, as a matter of record, in the New York Public Library.” To recreate the vibrant gilded first copy handed to Jo March and bookending the film, production consulted Massachusetts-based bookbinder Devon Eastland to create period appropriate book props.
All of this is just a little bit of the background research necessary to get that ornate first copy of Little Women into the hands of Jo March at the end of the film.