Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else….If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I’ve had ever so many but haven’t returned them, and I ought, for they are debts of honor, you know.”
I have always wanted to go back and revisit this episode, because it is intriguing to think of limes as a social metaphor for status and acceptance: Not only are you one of us, but one of my favored, because I bestow this pickled lime upon you. I assumed it was historically accurate, but wondered where and how limes came to New England in the middle of the 19th century? And most especially, how they ended up as a schoolyard status symbol.
For Amy and her classmates, it wasn’t just the giving of limes, but the importance of giving back to the girls who gave the pickled limes first. This point cannot, to these school girls, be overstated.
The next day Amy was rather late at school; but could not resist the temptation of displaying, with pardonable pride, a moist brown-paper parcel…During the next few minutes the rumor that Amy March had got twenty-four delicious limes…and was going to treat circulated through her “set”…Katy Brown invited her to her next party on the spot; Mary Kingsley insisted on lending her her watch till recess….
Unfortunately, her stash is discovered by the teacher, who has forbidden them in the classroom and Amy is forced to throw them out the window.
Linda Zeidrich in her book, The Joy of Pickling, tackles Amy’s limes in a brief history. She describes their availability and low cost at a typical neighborhood store where they were sold on the counter for a penny each. “Kids chewed, sucked, and traded pickled limes at school (and not just at recess) for decades, making the limes the perennial bane of New England schoolteachers.” Doctors thought this was an unnatural habit, but parents didn’t seem to be bothered and were content to let their children indulge. Interesting that at some point science recognized the benefits of citrus for health.
While it was true that some limes were grown in the United States, most came from the West Indies where they were packed in sea water or brine and shipped in barrels to ports in the Northeast, especially to Boston where they were the most popular. Zeidrich makes the ironic point that the limes of Louisa May Alcott’s schoolgirls were tied to the same slave labor in the Caribbean that sent Mr. March to fight against slavery in the United States. It always helps to know the origin of things when possible….
The cost per lime was so low because they were not classified as fresh fruit, which had a much higher tariff. Occasionally Congress tried to classify them with fresh fruit which brought protests. When Boston importer, William Brexnax, argued for separate classifications before the Ways and Means Committee of the Congress of the United States in 1909, he did so on the basis that the consumers of pickled limes were women and children from a small area of the country, the small consumption of which posed no commercial threat to fresh limes. You can read the full argument below.
Do-it-yourself pickled limes seem easy enough and while I found some period recipes this one from a 1854 issue of Godey’s Ladies Book, might have been close to what Amy and her friends ate.
“The dry and fresh-gathered fruits are put into strong, wide-mouthed glass bottles, carefully corked, and luted with a cement of lime and soft cheese, and bound down with wire. The bottles are then inclosed (sp) separately in canvas bags, and put into a kettle of water, which is gradually heated until it boils; the bottles are kept in this condition until the fruits are boiled in their own juice. The whole is then left to cool; after which the bottles are examined separately, and put away for store.”
Some recipes added salt and none I found were sweet, so it seems children ate them tart or sour.
I still don’t know why these pickled limes were traded by children whose later counterparts traded baseball cards or little key chains as we did at my school or whatever children are trading for status now. I suppose their ease of acquisition and cheap cost had something to do with it.
(Here is William F. Brexnax’s argument before the House Ways and Means Committee defending pickled limes against a fresh fruit tariff. Formatted by me for readability).
Hearings, Volume 20
By United States. 60th Congress. 2d session., 1908-1909. House.
188 PICKLED LIMES Paragraph 559
WM F BREXNAX IMPORTER BOSTON MASS WISHES A SEPARATE CLASSIFICATION MADE FOR PICKLED LIMES 1 13 CENTRAL STREET
Boston January 26 1909 COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS Washington DC
GENTLEMEN In the revision of the tariff let me urge that the classification of pickled limes remain unchanged as this commodity has but a very limited sale and confined almost exclusively to a few New England states.
After limes are immersed in sea water for twenty four hours it causes such a physical change that they are of no commercial value whatever other than as a pickled lime because they can not be freshened out or used only for eating in their changed condition and in this form they are consumed mostly by women and children of this section of the country who have acquired the taste for them.
Under the Wilson bill they were charged as pickles at 30 per cent ad volorem and continued so under the present bill until the Board of General Appraisers decided to class them as limes at 1 cent per pound together with the water which surrounded the same which ruling was amended by the decision of the United States circuit court of appeals in my suit against the Government for refund of duties since which time they have come in under paragraph 559 and admitted free as fruits in brine not specially provided Tor
The business done in them is quite small and positively no protection is needed for the few limes grown in the United States as they never pickle them and if pickled limes should again be classified under the head of green fruit it would be putting a prohibition value upon them for they are usually sold for a cent each and when the retailers can not do this the business small as it is will be curtailed very materially.
It has been proven by the courts that there has under all tariffs been a distinction made between limes and pickled limes and I would ask that this decision remain unchanged. This merchandise is not commercially known as limes and therefore should have a distinct classification if it is to be designated in any way in the new list. No tariff that the Government ever issued has classified pickled limes so it can be seen that they have never been considered of sufficient importance to give them a place. But now that revision is under way the opportunity should be embraced to make provision for them and thereby avoid a mix up again with the general appraisers in determining the proper interpretation of the tariff and I present the subject at this time with that end in view I trust that our New Englanders may continue to eat the fruit as of old which will be the case unless the United States needs to increase the cost by a tariff for revenue only.
Yours truly WM F BRENNAN Importer TABIFIT HEARINGS 7755
18 thoughts on “Amy’s Pickled Limes-Little Women”
I’ve always been intrigued by Amy’s indulgence, and you shed excellent light on the subject here. Thanks for all the information, and for letting me decide that ultimately, I don’t want to try them.😝
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I admit, I haven’t tried them either! But this was a fun topic to learn more about, at any rate
Fancy meeting you here! I was looking up pickled lime recipes and your post came up first on my search 🙂
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Oh my gosh! What a fun project. I hope it works out 🙂
I’m still mad at Amy’s teacher.
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He WAS beastly.
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Like the other Jean, I’ve always wondered about the pickled limes! Thanks!
Thank you very much for the explication. I used to wonder and even worry about this when I first read LW. I had tentatively tried a lime and found it to sour and wondered if those 19th century girls has vastly superior and sophisticated palates.
It is true about the taste. It is possible, back in their day, limes were of a different variety. Sadly, unless I can find a time machine, their actual taste will remain a mystery!
Reminds me of the craze for name cards in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie.
I cannot think of that off the top of my head. However, kids….:)
I have always wondered about the pickled limes!! Thank you for finding out.
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I know! I thought it was so odd looking at that whole passage with 21st century eyes, so I just had to know more 🙂
Very interesting post! I am going to share this on my Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page — they will find it fascinating as I did. Thanks for sharing!
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Hi Susan! Thank you so much.
I knew I would be back to this and will continue to. There is so much to explore. I can see why you have devoted your life to all things LMA 🙂