Missing Pieces

Sally Mitchell Barney is seated lower right. Image from collection of MMA Archives and Special Collections.

Sally Mitchell Barney is seated lower right.
Image from the collection of the MMA Archives and Special Collections.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly, in history we will always have missing pieces.   In particular, about daily life, the details of a person’s life, and about the average person who went unnoticed as she/he did her/his work and lived her/his life.

On occasion, we get a better glimpse into daily life when we come across a person’s personal journals and letters, account books, even photographs if it is late enough in time.  It still doesn’t tell you every last detail, but it does help.

People think I know everything about Maria Mitchell.  I do not not.  I know a great deal but not everything and not how she felt about everything.  We don’t have details about her life as a child besides the few things that were written as an adult or remembered by others.  We certainly have large holes of information about some of her siblings, even her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell.  And these holes are always something I try and keep filling.  I will never fill them all in but little pieces do help to paint a picture.

This fall, I and the Mitchell House, had the good fortune of meeting a couple from New Mexico who were on a New England tour.  The wife is from an old New England family – ancestors on the Mayflower (says I, the descendant of late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy) – and ancestors who lived on Nantucket, including her great grandmother, Eliza Gardner Heaton, who was born on Nantucket to Prince and Mary Gorham Gardner in 1816.  Eliza was a friend of Sally Mitchell’s (also born in 1816), the oldest sister of Maria Mitchell, and friendly with Maria as well.  Even better, Eliza attended William Mitchell’s schools.  This couple very kindly provided me with the recollections and notes of Eliza as they reference Sally and William and Maria as well.

I awaited the copies in the mail, and still having to close up Mitchell House for the winter, I was only recently able to begin reading the documents though I have been hankering since they came in the mail (I allowed myself a cursory look then).  And they have proved more than useful as they have provided me with information to fill a few holes not just about Sally, but William’s school as well – even a tidbit or two about Maria!

So, a few holes have been filled with many more gigantic ones to slowly fill in.  Maybe someday they will get filled to some extent.  But for now, I have some more pieces to use to tell the Mitchell story and also to put into our archives for future reference and for others to use to fill other holes!


More from Vestal Street –Astronomer’s Cottage Update

Well, sidewall and roof shingling is completed!  If you walk or drive by, you will note that the façade of the cottage at 3 Vestal Street is now re-shingled.  We think this is only the third or fourth time this portion of the cottage has been shingled.  But, there are portions of the cottage that have never been re-shingled – you can tell this by the nail holes – and also the removal of shingles has revealed some things to us which are quite exciting.

Asto Cottage facade

As you can see by two images, the house has been altered since it was built in the early 1830s.  The roof-line was changed – likely to accommodate better living space on the second floor, the chimney removed, and a pent roof and more Victorian front door was added (such a thing was not of the 1830s) but then later removed.  When I was a child, a porch existed on the east side – removed when the Observatory Seminar Room (the shingled addition that “bumps” into the east side of the cottage) was added in 1987.

What’s even more interesting is the back of the cottage.  This questionable area was better able to reveal itself when the shingles and tar paper were removed on the sidewalls.  As you can see in the image, the sheathing is separated – it has an almost perfect cut down it.  Where that cut exists, there is a corner post!  That means this last sheathing portion is a later add-on or “wart’ as we commonly call them on island.  This is also apparent inside the back kitchen ell where the floor drastically slopes towards the bathroom and pantry.  So, while the kitchen ell may have been added after 1830, the even further back portion of the kitchen ell was added at a later date – likely to provide the cottage with a bathroom once running water was introduced.  This is also why kitchen ells are so important – this was always where water was first introduced to a house – the kitchen where it was needed for cooking and cleaning and because of this fact, the kitchen ell was always where the one and only bathroom was introduced – unless the house had a full basement and the toilet often went there right under the kitchen.  Many years ago, before the MMA put on the back addition to Hinchman House there was an old summer kitchen.  And in the basement, the toilet.  It used to be enclosed by a very rickety shed-like structure to make it a bathroom.  I remember being terrified of it!

Where ell meets plumbed addition, Astro Cott.

Kitchen ell "seam", Astro Cott


And that’s how we learned a little bit more about the Astronomer’s Cottage during this exterior work which has been funded in part by a Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund matching grant.  A special thank you to Eric Nordby and his Yankee Construction crew for doing the work!

From MH


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Dec. 8,1853.  Last night we had the first meeting of the class of elocution.  It was very pleasant, but my deficiency of ear was never more apparent to myself . . .I practised {sic.} after I came home, with the family as audience.  H. says my ear is competent only to vulgar hearing, and I cannot appreciate nice distinctions . . . . Coloring I might have been good in, for I do think my eyes are better than those of any one I know.

Maria Mitchell did seem to have a problem with her ears.  When in Europe, she attended the opera as everyone who travelled throughout Europe would do – it was not just part of the visit but also of the education that resulted from a European trip.  The issue was that she was tone deaf and try as she might, she could never appreciate or enjoy the opera.  It did not stop her from trying though!  And I can see where the process of elocution might be difficult as well and the comments that “H.” (her youngest brother, Henry) makes to her are somewhat understandable – she doesn’t hear the difference.

Her feelings about color – and having better eyes – VERY true!  Not just because she was an astronomer or natural scientist – she was a natural observer and incredibly observant.  You’d be surprise at what people do NOT notice – but not Maria!  Which of course made her an even better scientist!


Happy Birthday Annie Jump Cannon


Yesterday was the birthday of Annie Jump Cannon.  In honor of her birthday, I am re-posting a blog I wrote last year.

A few weeks ago, Annie Jump Cannon was the featured Google “doodle.”  Google featured Maria Mitchell as the doodle a few years ago to celebrate her birthday and has been doing a good job of featuring well-known and lesser-known woman who have made a difference in our world.

Annie Jump Cannon was among the founding members of the MMA but she was also instrumental in the development of our astronomy program.  With a growing desire to further develop a fledgling astronomy program in 1906, the MMA began a dialogue with Harvard University’s Observatory and its director, Edward Pickering, Ph.D.  The connection to Harvard was to become essential to the success of the beginning years of the Maria Mitchell Observatory and continued a legacy of friendship and work – Maria Mitchell and her father worked with the Bonds who once ran the observatory at Harvard and the families were close friends.

Besides his advice and assistance, Pickering asked a member of his staff, Annie Jump Cannon to advise and assist the MMA.  This “provided an indispensable collaboration for Nantucket astronomy” with Cannon spending two weeks on the island in both 1906 and 1907 lecturing and teaching.  While back at Harvard, she continued to teach the students on Nantucket by mail.  Cannon would go on to be recognized as the leading woman astronomer of her generation and also as the founder of the astronomy department at the MMA.

Completed in 1908, the Maria Mitchell Observatory now was in need of a permanent astronomer.  An Observatory Committee was developed and chaired by Annie Jump Cannon.  From 1909 through 1911, the Association was able to employ an astronomer to teach classes, observe, provide lectures, and open the observatory for public observing for approximately a month each summer.  As the demand grew, the MMA realized that a more extensive program was needed and the Astronomical Fellowship Committee began to raise funds for an Astronomical Fellowship Fund.  With the support of many generous donors and a matching gift from Andrew Carnegie, by 1911 the MMA had the funds it needed to support  the fellowship and began its search for an astronomer who would conduct research and provide lectures, classes and open nights for the public from mid-June through mid-December.  The fellow would spend the remainder four months in research and study – every fourth year a full year of study would be spent in an American or European observatory.

With Pickering, Cannon developed the Harvard Classification Scheme, an attempt to organize and classify stars by temperature.  She was one of many women whom Pickering hired to reduce data and carry out astronomical calculations.  She would go on to become the Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard.  She received a regular Harvard appointment but just two years before she retired – she was named the William C. Bond Astronomer.  Today, there is the Annie Cannon Prize which is awarded to women astronomers who have made outstanding contributions in astronomy.


Still Going


A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the morning glories and nasturtiums in the Mitchell House front garden were still going.  Well, they still are!

Granted the morning glory blossoms are small but the nasturtiums are still happy.  Yes, fewer buds but they keep on trucking along happy with the warmth and sunshine they get from the south and the protection of Mitchell House.

I have to admit though, the morning glories vines and leaves were sad and wind whipped so I finally pulled them on November 18.  We still have not had a hard frost – or much frost at all for that matter – so once that comes along then they will be slime.  I will leave the nasturtiums and see how long they get.  I actually picked a bunch for my desk!



Is a time of and for thanks.  I have quite a few people to thank and I fear I won’t capture all of them here.  I am giving my thanks to the women and men who do a lot of things for MMA and for me on a daily basis, particularly where it concerns my work on the MMA facilities.  These are the people who have been working on our buildings and grounds, keeping things looking nice and improving upon things that are broken, rundown, and not looking so nice frankly.  And many of them have been doing it for many years already.

Some of our projects this year have been grant funded and we are greatly appreciative to those people, foundations, and granting agencies for their confidence in and support of our work.

This year’s projects – and repairs – have included things like new gutters on some of our buildings – including Hinchman House – painting of Hinchman and the Astronomer’s Cottage, work on turning our former Science Library into a Research Center, roofing Hinchman, installing a new (not leaking) shower and bathroom floor in the Hinchman dorm, and installing new drainage and a sewer line.  These are just a few of the “biggies” but there are also things like washing windows, cleaning dryer vents (we have five of those!), and fixing the lighting which are just as important and may get overlooked sometimes.

So here goes the Thanks part which also includes the crews of these contractors, craftsmen, and artisans – all of my heroes! –  as well.  The MMA and I are eternally grateful!


Wayne and Andrea Morris, Wayne Morris Mason                   

Matt Anderson, Anderson Carpentry

Pen Austin                                                                               

Jim Badera, Badera Engineering

Jon Vollans, Vollans Electric                                                   

Bob Butler, Marden Plumbing  

Mickey Rowland, Milton Rowland Architects                            

Greg Maskell, Maskell Landscaping

Kevin Wiggin, Kevin Wiggin HVAC, Inc.                                   

Mike Freedman, Cabinetmaker

Jim Tyler, James Tyler Painting                                               

Marine Home Center

Burton Went, WMW Tile, Inc.                                                   

Sharon Cross

Pioneer Cleaning                                                                    


James Lydon and Sons and Daughters Roofing                         

Visco Pumping

Island Carpet                                                                          

John Wathne, Structures-North

Matt Ireland                                                                            

Jonathan Miles Window Cleaning

Taylor Butler                                                                           

Chris Miller

Eric Finger                                                                             

John Daly Plumbing

Island Cleaning Services                                                          

Greenwood Alarm       

Valero Locksmith Service

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Nov. 23 {1870}

My dear Lizzie {Williams, Vassar Class of 1869},

 . . . And you are so all over a radical, that it won’t hurt you to be toned down a little.  And in a few years (as the world moves) your family will have moved one way and you the other, a little and you will suddenly find yourselves in the same plane.

It is much the way it has been between Miss Lyman {Vassar’s Lady Principal} and myself.  Today she is more of a Women’s Rights woman than I was when I came here, while I begin to think that the girls dress better at tea time . . .

I have learned to think that a young girl better not walk to town alone even in the day time.  When I came here I should have allowed a child to do it.  But I never knew much of the world, never shall, nor will you . . .  we are both a little deficient in worldly caution and worldly policy . . . .

Lizzie is Elizabeth Williams Champney, a Vassar College student of Maria Mitchell’s who would become a close friend.  Her artist husband would paint a portrait of Maria later in her life – the couple had named a daughter after Maria Mitchell – and at least one of Lizzie’s books was dedicated to Maria Mitchell.  While a student at Vassar, Lizzie wrote a mock-biblical account of the life of Vassar’s founder, Matthew Vassar, that was claimed to be “shocking” and banned from the campus by Principal Lyman.

Lizzie was raised in Ohio by abolitionist parents – more than likely Quaker – thus she and Maria  shared a somewhat similar upbringing and also one of some sheltering.  This is noted throughout Maria’s letter to Lizzie – the trusting nature of non-worldly people as Quakers were – their trust for one another and “worldly” people (non-Quakers).  But also the equality factor – that a young woman should have no qualms of walking freely as Maria and other women did on Nantucket; as Lizzie did in her Quaker community at home.

Quakers were not just the leaders of slaves’ rights, they were also the leaders among women’s rights having been raised in families, religious meetings, and communities where women were treated as equals.  But being more radical in one’s views and actions would still bring some consternation among Quakers as no doubt Lizzie’s family was.  And Maria, as she noted to Lizzie, was not so radical nor such a woman’s rights woman.  Her upbringing had taught her that everyone was equal so it was a shock for Maria when confronted with a different way of treating women as she found off her Nantucket home.  This letter to Lizzie seems to serve as a gentle reminder or a gentle guidance to keep that in mind.


Lyon Pride

Ivory miniature of Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College.

Ivory miniature of Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College.

Mary Lyon was the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.  Frankly, she wanted it to be a college but given the times, she had a hard time convincing people (read: funders) of that.  Thus, the word “seminary” was chosen and the school opened in 1837 becoming the first women’s college in the country.  In 1861, the three-year course of study became four and then in 1888, the college was given its collegiate status.  The development of women’s colleges is a fascinating subject – cloistered as they were away from the hustle and bustle – and influences! – of towns and menfolk (of course!).  They were modeled in their design and basic daily running after insane asylums of the early nineteenth century – I kid you not.  I could go on but that is not the focus of this blog’s subject matter today.

There is a little arguing over just which college was first for women but it has been agreed that Wellesley and Vassar Colleges both modeled themselves after MHC as it is referred to by us alums – yes, I graduated from MHC.  There have been quite a few MHCers who have crossed the threshold at MMA I am happy to say – via internships in all the departments, fellowships that helped to begin the Astronomy Department back in the early twentieth century, and staff positions.

Mary Lyon smiled a bit more back in August when new Director of Natural Science, Emily Goldstein Murphy, joined the MMA.  Emily graduated several moons (pun intended) after I did from MHC but nevertheless that sisterhood spans generations and I am happy to have her join   us – as I am sure Maria Mitchell and Mary Lyon would be.

Welcome, Emily!  Roar!


My Visitors

Grape Arbor Sans Grapes or Leaves

It’s cold again.

Last week, I began to put the Mitchell House garden to bed.  With no frost yet though, the morning glories and nasturtiums are still going.  I didn’t have the heart to rip them out so I will let the frost get them and then, I will pull them out.

The rest of the MMA landscape is tended to by our wonderful landscaper and his crew who has been working for the MMA for over thirty years, Greg Maskell.  I believe we are the recipients of some generously discounted work at times.  Recently, Greg just put in a dry well and re-graded the area to the south of Hinchman to help us with our drainage issues.  I also asked him to put some gravel down in that work area – the old driveway – and it looks so much better and will be much nicer for the Natural Science Department to work over there – instead of working in mud!

One thing Greg and his crew did yesterday was cut back Peleg Mitchell’s grapes on the arbor at Mitchell House.  Always sad – and I fear another cold winter that might damage even more than last winter.  But now, its stark once again with just the close cut vines and no more straggling- hanging on-not yet fallen-or-eaten off grapes.  (This year the grapes were super sweet!).  The grapes have been a boon to a male cardinal who has been on them for weeks now.  I was upset to see him this morning though – and he was upset to see the grapes were gone.  I feel badly for him – those were nice meals he was having!

But, the cutting of the grapes did yield two more visitors today!  A Downy woodpecker and a White-breasted nuthatch were hopping around on the vines searching out a little sap and most definitely some bugs.  Such stark contrasts in color compared to the cardinal – all blacks, whites and greys save for the downy’s little red tuft on the back of his head.

So, I guess fall is here.  I finally had to drag out my heater since I have no heat over here at Mitchell House!  Brrr!