Friday, February 8, 2013

What I'm Reading: Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)

Evan and I are plowing through Little Women and having a great time of it. It's funnier than I remembered--or maybe some of the 1868 humor went over my head when I was a kid. Evan gets it, though.

One of the best things about reading aloud together (besides the quiet time snuggling all cozy under a blanket) is that he asks questions I wouldn't have thought to ask. I tend to breeze right over things I don't know, without even realizing it. Here are a few things we've learned.

What's a tin kitchen?
Jo's desk up here was  an old tin kitchen, which hung against the wall. In it she kept her papers and a few books, safely shut away from Scrabble*, who, being likewise of a literary turn, was fond a making a circulatory library of such books as were left in his way, by eating the leaves.
*(Scrabble is the "pet" rat that lives in the attic)

Reproduction of a 19th century tin kitchen,
made by Historic Housefitters
A tin kitchen was used for cooking on the hearth. Meat would be placed inside on a spit, and the heat of the fire would enter through the open side and be reflected off the closed tin, making for quick and even roasting.

All the pictures I found of tin kitchens are rounded like the one pictured here. It seems like a rounded desk would be difficult for writing on! But I think that adds to the charm, and determination, of the little office Jo has set up for herself in the attic.

What did treadmill mean, back then?
"I dare say; but nothing pleasant ever does  happen in this family," said Meg, who was out of sorts. "We go grubbing along day to day, without a bit of change, and very little fun. We might as well be in a treadmill."
As Evan pointed out, exercise gyms don't seem like the type of thing folks invested in, back in Civil War times. So what type of treadmill was Meg referring to? We found two different possibilities.

Photo from History of the Treadmill
 The first was an animal-powered device. Dogs, horses, or sheep could power a cream-separator, washing machine, churner, or saw. Similar treadmills have been used to train horses, or sled dogs for an Arctic expedition.

Photo from the National Archives of the U.K.
Treadmills were also used by humans, but not by choice. In Victorian-era prisons, prisoners were forced to walk for hours to grind grain. Something similar to a treadmill was also used as punishment, in which prisoners had to walk a certain number of steps in their cells in order to dispense their meals.

So, when Meg says she feels like she's on a treadmill, the commentary she's making about the life of a young woman without financial means is pretty darned glum. Poor Meg.

Who would have guessed that treadmills would be the wave of the future?


  1. What a treat to be experiencing that book with him! I never noticed those phrases - it sounds like I need to reread the book.

  2. This is fascinating, Ali! I love stopping and doing research like this when I'm reading...even if it side-tracks me...then I share the info with my daughter and husband. Thanks for sharing the info about the prisoners and treadmills, along with the tin kitchen photo. I'll be talking about this this weekend with my family-haha!

  3. I'm so with you--I think I do a better job at catching things when I'm reading when I'm doing it with one of the kids. And it certainly is nice to have to someone right there with you to discuss things with, isn't it?

    Tin kitchens--way cool!

  4. A tin kitchen sounds almost like something we used to use in Girl Scouts except it was a tin can instead. Cool. I love that you're sharing Little Women with a young man. I tweeted about your post and put a link on my Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook Page - I blog about her at

  5. I had no idea what a treadmill or tin kitchen were. There are certain things you read in older books that you don't know what they are, but you don't even think about it. I'm so glad you looked it up and shared!

    p.s. I love that you're reading this with your son!