Looking at Nasturtiums in A Different Way

EFA, ca.1950

The Mitchell House nasturtiums I sowed directly in the ground as I always do in late May are now blooming. They are mainly heirloom varieties – so something akin to what Mary Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s aunt who lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria’s family did, would have planted around “Neighbor North” – their name for the outhouse.

I love nasturtiums. They were also the favorite flower of a friend and mentor of mine – Edith Folger Andrews. I have written about Edith before. She was for many, many years curator of the Mitchell House – working at Mitchell House even before that. She was also an ornithologist who was instrumental in creating the MMA’s bird collection and driving the ornithology arm of the Natural Science Museum. When she first started at the MMA, the natural Science Department was still located in the Mitchell House and some of the curators and directors she worked for here at MMA were cousins of Maria Mitchell’s. One of the curators, in fact, painted this image of Edith in the sitting room of the Mitchell House in William Mitchell’s arm chair in the late 1940s. It is my favorite image of Edith – and the chartreuse of the hydrangea outside and Edith’s dress, along with the blue of the chair, are so vivid.

I look at nasturtiums a little bit differently now that Edith is gone. They have a tinge of sadness to them for me now. And I know that now, after many months, it’s time for me to make a trip to the cemetery to bring her a posey of nasturtiums.


Important New Donation Made to the Mitchell House


In June, I was contacted by a Mitchell family member inquiring if we might be interested in a family piece. This piece has descended through the Peleg Mitchell Jr. side of the family. Peleg, the youngest of William Mitchell’s brothers, purchased the house at 1 Vestal Street and lived in it until his death in the late 1880s.

In early July, the family member arrived at 1 Vestal Street having brought not one but two items all the way from California. From her bag she produced a camlet (baby blanket) and a small white cotton infant’s cap – both of which had descended in the Mitchell family via the oldest daughter since 1733!

The camlet is dark brown with a beautiful peacock blue silk border. Originally, camlets were woven of camel hair – thus the name – and later goat hair with silk and then basically any kind of wool or wool and cotton blends. This camlet is likely a cotton wool blend. Made even more special is the fact that a piece of twill tape is stitched to the underside of the blanket and on it are the initials and birth years of all of the baby girls who were wrapped in the blanket – it was then their task to pass the blanket on to their daughter. Once or twice it skipped a generation if no girls were born. This is a very unique record and makes the blanket even more special as we have its provenance right there on the blanket. Several small cards also came with the blanket speaking to its history. It is in wonderful condition having been cared for tremendously by its keepers. The infant’s cap is a treasure as well with a beautiful but simple cut piece sewn on to the main portion that gives a bit of a delicate sweep to the cap.

The babies wrapped in camlet from 1733 into 1980s.

We are truly grateful that the family felt that the Mitchell House was the place for these two items. They will of course be treasured and shared with visitors. It is a fitting return to the “homestead’ so to speak and we are truly grateful for the opportunity to protect, preserve, and share these two pieces.


The Cabinet of Curiosities


From this year’s Mitchell House Intern, Nikki Lohr, Vassar College Class of 2017.

In the Mitchell House sitting room stands William Mitchell’s writing desk, seven feet tall. When Maria was a child, she probably would have opened its cabinet doors to find shelves stacked with books and astronomy papers. Today, Mitchell House visitors will find the desk transformed into a cabinet of curiosities. In it, we installed a temporary exhibition about Maria’s travels. You’ll see photos of objects usually only found in the MMA archives, including pictures of Maria on her travels and a letter written from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Maria while she and the Hawthorne family traveled together in Rome.

Though Maria is remembered as a trailblazer of the heavens, she was just as pioneering on Earth. She traveled all over America and Europe in an age when a train ride from Chicago to St. Louis could take twenty-three hours and stage coaches plowed forth at a whopping six miles per hour.

Maria sailed to Europe twice, in 1857 and 1873. There, she visited over twenty-five cities in eight countries. She even ventured as far as Russia. In 1857, she took a four-month long grand tour of America. She journeyed out to the barren prairie lands of the Midwest and then south. After seeing New Orleans, she commented, “I think the Union cannot last.”

Perhaps most extraordinary, Maria sometimes traveled unaccompanied or only with women. At first, this made her wary. In May 1857, she visited Mammoth Cave, a massive natural monument in Kentucky. She wrote in her diary, “I was a little doubtful about the propriety of going into Mammoth Cave without a gentleman as protector, but if two ladies travel alone they must have the courage of men.”

By the time she reached Rome in 1858, she was happy to go it alone. She visited the Coliseum, the Vatican, and the Roman Forum – sites that must have resonated with her since she taught herself Latin at the Nantucket Atheneum. On January 24, 1858, she wrote to her sister Phebe: “I could scarcely believe that I really stood among the ruins, and was not dreaming! I really think I had more enjoyment for going alone and finding out for myself.”

So come by Mitchell House today, and learn more about Maria’s travels!

(And see the superb small exhibit created by Nikki with help from our student volunteer, Avery Hylton! JNLF)

Today Is Maria Mitchell’s 198th Birthday! Where Will You Be Today?

You should be on Vestal Street from 1-4PM.

An annual event pretty much since our doors officially opened in 1903, Maria Mitchell’s birthday has always been marked in some way and the annual open house – with the closure of lower Vestal Street and science and astronomy related activities – has been a “norm” around here for at least half a century.

All of the MMA properties are free and open to the public on Vestal Street – including the Aquarium at 28 Washington Street – from 1-4PM on August 1. In a nod to our birthday celebrations of old, we will have live period inspired music which will include sea chanties, a birds of prey demonstration starting at about 2:15, science and astronomy related activities for adults and children, live animal displays, and good old fashioned refreshment – our punch recipe that has not been made in about 20 years (if you were looking for limeade at the grocery store, I cleaned that out for the punch!)!

So come stop by, say hello, visit us for your first time or your 100th. This is our way of celebrating Maria and YOU our supporters and friends!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

1883, July. I heard Mr. Adams at the Universalist Church . . . I was most surprised at his fear of Tyndall, Huxley and Spencer. Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the searching after it?

I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence and while their live sensualists and despots and men who are wholly self-seeking, I cannot bare to have these sincere workers help up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the Earth.

Wow! Not much to comment here but somehow Maria already knew about the world in 2016, including the U.S. presidential contest! Goes without saying, some things never change.


The Finer Points of Cleaning New Donations

Cleaning new donations

On July 12th, I introduced the Mitchell House intern to the finer points of cleaning artifacts – in-depth curatorial cleaning. Nikki Lohr (a Vassar College senior this year, this summer’s intern, comes to us via the MMA-Vassar College Fellowship funded by a Vassar alum. The artifacts were recently donated to us from Ginger Andrews out of her family’s home on York Street which has been in the family since it was built about 1830. We were given several child-related items which had been living in the attic for a very long time and due to being so close to the roof were quite dusty and dirty from things sifting down through roof shingles and sheathing boards from wind and even re-roofing projects. She is wearing the delightful particle mask to protect her from any mold and dust. Since we do not have an indoor conservation workplace, we have to rely on a nice day outdoors to get the job done and the 12th was a perfect day – a gentle day and no humidity! We also worked on photographing the items and labeling them as we get them ready to put into our collections database.

In this image, Nikki is working on a child’s potty-chair. It is unfortunately missing its pot, but it is a wonderful mid-nineteenth century chair with hand-painted details. This chair along with a child’s rocking chair, a child’s doll cart, and an image of the astronomer Loomis will now all be on display at the Mitchell House so come see what’s new!

More Activities on Vestal Street Than You Shake a Stick At!

Painting Hinchman House

When you visit Vestal Street you may begin to notice some more changes at the Maria Mitchell Association. We continue our work to the MMA’s former Science Library which hopefully – by late fall – will be up and running as our new Research Center. The building largely remains as it always has but now it will have a state-of-the-art climate system and an improved classroom space. It will also serve as the Natural Science Department offices and continue as a collections storage site this time with the biological collections, as well books from the former circulating collection of science books. We have even removed that very old unsightly oil tank and the garbage bins as well. The mason is currently working in the basement to replace the support posts with new posts with proper footings rather than just sitting on top of the concrete floor as they have been doing for many decades. We want to make sure that the main floor is properly supported! Yes, things are looking much nicer at Number 2.

And, if you look closely, Hinchman House has a brand new roof which I posted about a few weeks ago. And soon, the Astronomer’s Cottage at 3 Vestal Street will have a new roof. We have improved drainage in the backyard area at Hinchman House, we will be painting the exterior of Hinchman House – in fact it began on June 24th, and the Astronomer’s Cottage trim and sashes will be painted soon as well. The work on these two properties is funded largely thanks to a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. It is a 1:1 matching grant for which we are still raising the remaining matching portion so please let us know if you would like to help!

I am happy to report as well that our Executive Director, Dave Gagnon, who just celebrated his one year of working for the MMA and living on Nantucket, has moved into the Astronomer’s Cottage. He and his wife, Shelley Dresser, and their youngest daughter, Hope, have all moved in – along with friendly and sweet dogs Maddie and Winnie (Winston, yes after Winston Churchill and this Winston is a male Papillion), and lion-maned rabbit, Sebastian. And with a few new coats of paint and some other spiffing and repairs they are making 3 Vestal Street their home.

So please, if you have not done so already, come take a look and while you are at it, visit our sites!


Like Small Clams at the Bottom of their Chairs

Mushrooms at Mitchell's

I came across this beautiful little line-up the other day when I went to drop off more of my books at Mitchell’s Book Corner for them to sell and a certain line immediately came into my head. “ . . . . that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.” I am hoping that you will recognize that as the early part of the chapter on Nantucket in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. And all the more appropriate because it was at the bookstore! Yes, they are not clams but mushrooms but that is what I immediately thought of. Perhaps there is another book out there that refers to mushrooms all in a row but I was taken by these when I saw them. Proudly standing up along Orange and Main Street; squished between brick wall and sidewalk. And I have recounted before the connections between Melville and Maria Mitchell. And add to that too that Mitchell’s Book Corner was founded by Henry Mitchell “Mitch” Havemeyer, the only grandson of Maria Mitchell’s youngest brother Henry Mitchell, in 1968.

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

1881, June 6
I have been clearing up drawers. A sad business when it comes to burning letters or not burning, of those who have passed away . . .

After the Great Fire of 1846 that destroyed much of the lower core district of the Town of Nantucket, including the all-important wharves, Maria Mitchell destroyed many of her private papers after witnessing those of others blowing about the Town laying bare their most intimate feelings and words. For us, it is most unfortunate. I am sure burning happened quite a bit with private papers that no one wished to keep but when I read Maria’s own words about burning letters and papers I always wish she had not! Some of the things she may not have thought appropriate for others to read would likely not be inappropriate in our eyes today. But as she notes, it was also a hard process – especially when those letters served as the tangible memory of someone lost – the actual paper, their words, their writing that was still on the page even though they were no longer of the Earth. Her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall to whom Maria left her personal papers and which Phebe compiled into a book, additionally did a good job of destroying things she felt were not appropriate for others to read. She bladed out pages from Maria’s journals, pasted pages together so that if pulled apart (even by a conservator) all the words would be obliterated, or she crossed out passages with ink. She developed a very good hatching system with her pen and ink! You cannot make out one word! It is infuriating but they both accomplished their goal, that’s for sure!



Every year we have quite a few leaves but very rarely do we actually get a flower! So I was very excited the other day when I spied this from several feet away. I was actually having a fairly serious work discussion with the MMA’s Executive Director when quite frankly, I pretty much shushed him by throwing up my hand and saying “Wait! It’s a Mayapple!” Thoroughly confusing him of course because what the heck is a Mayapple? My son was also present and at age two is now into mimicking things he thinks sound fun so then he started yelling in two-year-old speak, “We have a Mayapple!” Of course, it typically flowers in May – thus its name – but on Nantucket that would be the beginning of June.
For those of you not familiar with what one is, here is some information on it from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Podophyllum peltatum
Podophyllum peltatum L.
Mayapple, Indian apple, Wild mandrake, Pomme de mai, Podophylle pelt
Berberidaceae (Barberry Family)
USDA Native Status: L48 (N), CAN (N)
Mayapple is unique in that It has only 2 leaves and 1 flower, which grows in the axil of the leaves. The large, twin, umbrella-like leaves of mayapple are showy and conspicuous. They remain closed as the stem lengthens, unfolding 6–8 inches across when the plant has reached its 1-1 1/2 ft. height. The solitary, nodding, white to rose-colored flower grows in the axil of the leaves and has 6–9 waxy white petals, with many stamens. The nodding fruit is a large, fleshy, lemon-shaped berry.
Mayapple colonizes by rhizomes, forming dense mats in damp, open woods. The common name refers to the May blooming of its apple-blossom-like flower. Although the leaves, roots, and seeds are poisonous if ingested in large quantities, the roots were used as a cathartic by Native Americans. The edible, ripe, golden-yellow fruits can be used in jellies. The alternate popular name Mandrake rightly belongs to an unrelated Old World plant with a similar root.