Jo March Had to Sell Her Hair, But She Still Has More Money Than You

By Melissa DeVrieze

Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women has put the March sisters and their exploits back at the forefront of public discourse, at least for a time. Full disclosure: instead of going to the theatre to see it, I did what I always do on nights and weekends, which is stay home. To tide myself over until the movie is available in my living room, though, I re-read the book, which I recommend even if you’ve seen the latest movie. Re-reading Little Women and Pride and Prejudice at least once per year is a salve for the soul. Try it.

Reviews reveal that one notable moment from the novel is absent from the film, and it’s a curious detail to omit: Jo’s $100 story prize. That her largest single payment to date came from work she wrote for commercial viability rather than artistic integrity has always stood out to me as one of the most modern and relatable details. Of course, Jo’s entire story arc makes for an interesting exploration of how little has changed in the lives of writers between the 1860s and today and could serve as an instructional guide on what lies ahead for aspiring writers.

1860s: Jo helps support her family with her writing while her father spends his days being professionally admired and incredibly poor. Mr. March has spent the last thirty years waiting patiently for “fruit of his own to ripen, and being in no haste to gather it,” so obviously he has strong opinions on how to write. Jo’s writing profits have funded a two-month trip to the seaside for Marmee and the gravely ill Beth, covered the butcher’s bill, re-carpeted the house, and kept the whole family flush in “groceries and gowns.” Nevertheless, he prizes moral superiority above all, even when unmerited and facing abject poverty, and so he must express his disappointment. Only a man of inferior morals would do otherwise.

Today: A much older man who is not a writer believes it is in your best interest to hear his opinions on how best to write. You have disappointed him, and you need to know it, even if you are currently celebrating your first published story or funding his lifestyle as an unpaid guru and YouTube thought leader. “Going to the beach” is the only healthcare your family can afford, and it’s becoming clearer by the day that Beth just isn’t going to make it.

1860s: Before publishing her book, Jo’s father tells her not to do it. Following in his footsteps would mean waiting thirty years and making some disastrous financial decisions that will limit and haunt her family, so she just nods and ignores him. Her mother and sisters want her to change significant details, so she does. Once published, complete strangers send her letters of advice so she’ll know precisely what they like and don’t like about her and her novel. Her mother says she shouldn’t worry so much. The letters plague her.

Today: Your mom thinks your novel is too racy, your sisters think it’s not racy enough, your father (now sort of a pro bono life coach) thinks you should be more like him. Beth gets sicker by the day, but still she smiles. Your Twitter mentions are a nightmare.

1860s: Jo writes alone in the attic at a feverish pace while wearing her special writing hat.

Today: You write alone in the attic at a feverish pace while wearing your special writing hat.

1860s: Jo wins $100 for a short story, is paid $1 per column for Spread Eagle magazine (which isn’t what it sounds like) and receives a $300 advance for her debut novel. The average weekly wage paid to a female domestic worker in 1860s Massachusetts was $1.58. A farmhand during the same year could expect to receive $15.34 per month. In 1860, $1 could pay up to one quarter of the month’s rent on a four-room home. Just for comparison, Mr. March would have been making $13 per month as an army chaplain. The absolute nerve of that man.

Today: Between 2009 and 2017, American authors’ incomes fell 42% while book revenues fell 21%. Writers, save for a few at the very top, don’t make their living writing anymore. Instead, they teach, accept speaking engagements, work full-time jobs and write in spare moments, or puzzle together freelance work and part-time jobs to make ends meet or. Compared to today’s writers, Jo March was positively rolling in it.

What’s an aspiring today writer to do for groceries and gowns? We’re loathe to say it, but: don’t quit your day job. And, if you absolutely have to quit your day job, you better try to stay in Aunt March’s good graces; selling your hair isn’t quite the gambit it used to be either, it seems.


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