Chamber Pot?

Chamber Pot Shards?This spring, thanks to a generous grant, we were able to replace the cedar board fence behind the Mitchell House that was in long need of replacement. It was likely from the late 1960s and did its part for a very long time. Part of the area where this fence runs was once the home of “Neighbor North” as the Peleg Mitchell Junior family called it. Neighbor North was the Mitchell family outhouse and was located in the north part of the backyard. Mary Mitchell, wife of Peleg Jr, surrounded it with nasturtiums in summer and Peleg himself planted a grape vine that grew over it (I mentioned this is a previous post).

As with any digging in the Mitchell House yard, or even a hard rain, pottery shards are often revealed and as you might know from another previous post, I love pottery shards. As you can see in this image, there is an overwhelming amount of one design of pottery and we can assume it is all from the same piece. Since it is in the area of Neighbor North, I believe this may be the remains of a chamber pot that was brought in the morning to be emptied in the outhouse but never made it back into the Mitchell House because it was dropped or accidentally shattered during the process of emptying. These are the white, blue, and brown striped shards. I have also found a straight, thick piece that could be a portion of the handle of a chamber pot. You can see other pieces too in this image. They could be chips from other chamber pots that were damaged in their emptying process or were discarded in the outhouse hole when broken. Or, simply, other pottery pieces that were tossed behind the outhouse when they were damaged beyond use or could not be made into a “make-do.” What’s a “make-do” you ask? Now that is for another blog. But keep this in mind, even the simplest and smallest piece of “trash” can tell you something about the people who came before us and what the site it is found in was used for or even the economic status of a family. A little piece of trash can be another woman’s treasure – in many ways, including knowledge!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

1872. Nov. 4. Sorosis.

Lunch was at noon, but it was noon neither mean nor apparent {a reference to mean solar time and apparent solar time} but a Sorosis noon.

Some 100 guests arrayed themselves around tables or around the walls of the room. Mrs. Wiler presided at the central table with Miss Faithfull on her right and jenny June Croty on her left. AT the same table were Dr. Emily Blackwell, Dr. Mary Putnam and Mrs. Bullan of the Revolution . . . . A question for discussion then came up whether most good would be exerted by Sorosis if it had a special aim or aimed only at a general expression of views . . . .

Maria Mitchell was one of the founding members of SOROSIS, a woman’s group that formed in 1869 in response to female journalists being barred from a press conference and dinner held for Charles Dickens on his first trip to the United States. In response, women reporters, authors, educators, doctors, and scientists and others came together at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City, forming Sorosis where women could discuss topics of the day and further the educational and social activities of its women members and other women so that all could be helped. It was the first professional women’s club in the US. Sorosis would expand to have smaller groups around the country, including here on Nantucket, and island born women such as Anna Gardner and the Reverend Phebe Hanaford were members. Maria’s humor is readily apparent – note her beginning lines – obviously Sorosis meetings and luncheons did not start on time.


National Women’s History Museum and Maria Mitchell

Yes, in case you were not aware, there is a National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) – well, not a bricks and mortar building yet! This organization has been working diligently for many years to secure the last place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to honor American women – just as all the men folk have been honored. We tend to forget that where male history took place, there were always females too – even on the battlefield!

The NWHM has for a few years been honoring women of today in the name of women from our past. This year, Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician, is being honored in the name of Maria Mitchell! The thought behind these honors is that the women of today are standing on the shoulders of these ground-breaking women of the past. A short video is being created by the NWHM that incorporates Maria and Katherine Johnson and they are using numerous historic photographs from the collection of our archives. Take home gift bags will include a MMA brochure. The attendees are women from all walks of life here in the US – from US senators and US representative to CEOs and movie stars (Meryl Streep pledged one million dollars to the NWHM a few years ago) to business owners and even curators (though while invited, I am not going to be in attendance unfortunately).

It’s a very exciting recognition of Maria and as a Charter Member of the NWHM, the Mitchell House might have a button or two popping. So congratulations to Katherine Johnson and yeah for Maria!

To learn more about the NWHM Honors and the NWHM, please visit


Update: Conservation of the MMA Science Library Building

photo 2

And we are off! In these photographs, you see island mason Wayne Morris along with his mason tender daughter, Andrea, the engineer, the grout and pillow anchor fabricator representative, and myself (we were a crowd!) testing the pillow anchors that are inserted into the holes they sawed into the northern façade of the MMA’s Science Library building. These pillow anchors, developed by John Wathne of Structures-North, an engineer who specializes in historic buildings and who has worked on Mitchell House, will be pumped with grout to a set PSI. In one image you see one that has been filled and resembles a pill package. Those areas were where holes in a cement block existed and where the grout filled the pillow and pushed up into the voids in the block. This is what will happen to the MMA building. The pillow will expand and fill the voids in the terracotta tiles of the NatCo system that make our building’s walls. This will stabilize the walls where you see cracking. Pillow anchors are not a new thing – they are typically long and resemble a sock. But these flat, square anchors were developed by the engineer specifically for our building.

Pillow anchor

Now that the test is complete, anchors and grout are on order. Scaffolding is up around the chimney on the back of the building where the mason will be re-pointing and rebuilding the top of the chimney which vents the furnace. Then, he will move to the front of the building and replace the steel lintels under the windows, install the pillow anchors, and repair the terracotta tiles where there has been map cracking. Once this work is complete, stucco will be reapplied to fill in the openings on the face of the building, work will be completed to the gutters and downspouts, and then painting will be completed to the building. The building will also likely get darker, returning to more of a grey tone as it was when it was built. All of this exterior work has been funded by the Community Preservation Act. Stay tuned as the work progresses!


Filling Pillow Anchor

Putting grout into machine.JNLF and Cintec Rep




Toys blog

The plastic orange duck you see here is approximately forty-one years old. Yes, I just gave away my age. That plastic duck, made in Germany and speaking very much of the age it was created in both design and color, was mine. Then, it was my brother’s. Then, it was used by my dolls, including my beloved Rub-a-Dub (she could go in the tub! And my Rub-a-Dub had a curl on the top of her washable hair – not many did). Then, that same duck was used by my niece and nephew when they were babies and spending time with Nana and Grandpa. And now?  Well, now it is just about my son’s favorite baby toy. Who would have thought? It is a rattle as well – it has a small bead or two inside and it makes a very soft but pleasant sound. It also gives him some places to rub his itchy gums on – he is teething in a most serious manner . . . we still await teeth after at least two months of teething.

Toys have not changed too much since Maria’s day. Yes, there are entirely too many, they are unfortunately heavily made of plastic, they are brightly colored. But, there were rattles and teethers, dolls and stuffed animals, tea sets and dollhouses, toy soldiers and tin horses. Granted, Quaker toys were far simpler than toys of non-Quakers but they all had a purpose for life stages of infants and children, helping them advance, to get through teething, to remain quiet at meeting or while mother was busy, and teaching children how to be proper adults. Well, my duck did not help me to be a proper adult but it did occupy me quietly for a time as it now does my son and provided me with something to chew upon.

Mitchell House has a small but wonderful assortment of mid to late nineteenth century toys. Once piece in the collection is this tin horse made by Peleg Mitchell Jr’s tinsmith partner, James Austin, for his grandchildren. Its tin tail may have at one time had a small amount of real horse hair tufting from it and it was also likely attached to a larger stand. I will tell you that one wrong move with it and a child would have quickly found out what sharp meant! Its tin mane has a “nice” edge to it that could still make a slice of a delicate hand. So toys taught a little more than some of our toys do today. Child safety was not the same obviously but a child then quickly learned a little respect and caution – not that I condone that way of thinking! We have come a long way, no? And just think, when you see the cradle in the birth room at the Mitchell House, rocking a baby was not the soothing gentle act we all think about when we see one. Women rocked those babies in the 18th century and earlier; hard. Babies were not necessarily soothed to sleep. After a mother’s rocking, they were probably semi-conscious or on their way to nausea and dizziness that forced them to quiet down and possibly fall asleep. Ugh!

Tin Horse


Among Good Company

Capstone MMThe other day, a new biography about Maria Mitchell appeared at my door. Now this one is not for everyone . . . well, I guess it could be for everyone but it is really aimed at the pre-kindergarten to first grade set. If you are an adult, it will take you about two minutes tops to read! Since the publisher used several of our historic images, they are required to send us one free copy for the Archives. As you can see, Maria is in good company – a broad mix of women – and I am hoping that list grows!

We have had quite a few requests for image use this year – both for children’s books – although this one is the only one that is just about Maria and no one else – and for articles and adult history and science books. We have also had a few researchers using Maria Mitchell’s papers. They include a woman researching Henry David Thoreau’s time on Nantucket – he and Maria crossed paths a few times – and a man researching the eclipse of 1878. Maria travelled to Denver to observe the eclipse, taking along a few of her students and her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who recorded the event with sketches and watercolors. The Archives receives fees when photographs are used and if I complete transcriptions of the papers. This helps to support their conservation. So, I am expecting the Mitchell House mail to be a bit full over the next months as more publications arrive!


Capstone MM 2


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865{1854} Oct. 27. Last night I heard Josiah Quincy Jr. {president of Harvard College} lecture on the Mormons. It was the first lecture of the Atheneum course. I went to the first last winter and listened with contempt to Matthew Hale Smith {Unitarian minister}. I expected of a Quincy something very much above a Smith, but the distance between the two men, is not, after all, so very great.

Both lectures were anecdotal, if Quincy’s was more witty it was also more inelegant. It would have made a pleasant drawing room lecture but had not the dignity desirable in a Lyceum discourse, where it is presumable something will be taught. But the fault is not with Matthew Hale Smith nor with Jos. Quincy Jr. While the community is the same and the taste for lectures the same, and the lecture going people are no more enlightened, great men will come down to the level and small ones will struggle up to it . . .

This is most certainly Maria at her pointed and “no mincing of words” best. I think her words speak for themselves. She was disappointed, feeling she was to learn something but the speakers felt that they needed to reach their audience – these off-islanders, or “coofs,” did not know the audience they were dealing with on Nantucket obviously! Life-long and eager learners, who continued to educate themselves, the speakers did not realize just how savvy and well-educated these Nantucketers were. I would love to know if others in the audience felt the same as Maria.



Baby bunny 2014We seem to always have one baby bunny in the Mitchell House yard. 2014’s baby has been a bit more respectful of the garden then his predecessors. He did not mow down all the morning glories like one of the baby bunnies before him, nor did he munch his way through the nasturtiums. What he did do was create a burrow under one of the rosemary plants that we have had growing for several years out front. This rosemary has made it through quite a few winters, including the ten inches of snow we got this past March – that late blizzard that did in some of my own plants at home, including my Japanese anemones. So we shall see if his burrow harms the rosemary but so far, no harm done. He, like his friends before him, scoots between front and backyards one of two ways. He either nips under a portion of the House that is open underneath or he runs around to the front and goes under the front porch. The bunnies before him never really did that last route so I give him – or her! – credit for some intelligence on that. This bunny has an escape route! However, where he is lacking is in his danger instinct. He has become so used to us that he has now taken, especially with the last few really hot and humid days – the first of the summer but in September! – to sitting next to the hydrangea in the backyard of the House. He is just far enough away from the crawlspace to be where the air is better but close enough to run under. But, he just sits there. I move in and out of the Cottage, sometimes accidentally allowing the screen door to slip and slam and he just sits there. In this photograph, though it’s hard to see, he actually has his back legs crossed. He has an enormous grown up tail – he has not met it yet with the rest of his body size – and a beautiful white belly. I actually thought due to his calm and lazy demeanor that he was not feeling well yesterday as he did not leave the spot for several hours! But he was back at it again today so I took the opportunity to take this photograph of him. (I did not ask him to sign a release form.) He was there when I got in this morning and two hours later, he is still there just now facing a different direction. So, I think he is just too trusting of us. Not that we would harm him.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellSeptember 3. We have been three weeks in London “out of season” but with plenty of letters; at present we have as many acquaintances as we desire. Last night we were at the opera; tonight we go out to dine and tomorrow evening to a dance, the next day to Admiral Smyth’s. The opera fatigued me, as music always does. I tired my eyes and ears in the vain effort to appreciate it. Mario was the greatest star of the evening but I knew no difference.

At this date, Maria Mitchell was still very much at the beginning of her European tour as a young woman’s chaperone. For many Americans, Maria included, a European tour served as a college education of sorts. Visits to the opera, grand palaces and museums, ruins and historic buildings and sites served as a source of education and inspiration. While she tried the opera – we have her opera glasses to prove it – Maria was supposedly tone deaf so I am sure it was not easy for her to make her way through an entire opera. Dancing was a whole other thing – Quakers forbid it – but at this point Maria had left Quaker meeting. So she was certainly taking it all in and trying everything – even things she did not enjoy – in order to learn and expose herself to new things.  Now that is a good tourist!


The Grapes of Wrath?

Grapes 2014

At moments, I have a small choice word or two as I drag yet another squished grape into the cottage on the bottom of my foot. And then I think to myself, “It’s September at the Mitchell House!”

Peleg Mitchell Junior, Maria Mitchell’s uncle and the owner of 1 Vestal Street from 1836 until 1882 (his wife, Mary, continued to own the House until 1902 when she passed away) planted a grape arbor at the rear of Mitchell House. The grape plant continues to thrive to this day; in fact it is protected in the preservation easement on the Mitchell House. The original supports are long gone, but Peleg’s grapes continue on a new arbor. This year we have a bumper crop with no mold or any issues with the fruit it seems. Concord grapes, they start off sweet and then turn sour – an acquired taste. Some people like to eat the little tendrils that allow the grapes to climb, claiming they have a lemony flavor though I don’t taste that. The birds, in particular the catbirds, are made happy, especially with this year’s crop. When Peleg lived here they also had Isabella grapes climbing over the woodshed but unfortunately that structure and Neighbor North (the outhouse) are long gone.

In Two Steps Down, Alice Albertson Shurrocks’s book about the Mitchell House, her grandfather was Peleg, she writes that the Concord grape arbor, “stood opposite to the cookroom at the edge of the sunny slope, leading from the upper grass plot to the lower . . . and I could look down on the vine from my bedroom.” She would spend her summers at 1 Vestal. The slope is long gone, replaced by a small retaining wall in the 1930s when the Curator’s Cottage was added at the rear of the House but it is still sunny.

Mrs. Shurrocks was married to Alfred Shurrocks, a well-respected architect who designed the Wing of the MMA Science Library. Mrs. Shurrocks was one of the curators of the MMA. They lived at 16 Vestal Street. In the next few weeks, I will give you an update on the conservation work there. The mason is just beginning!