Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Oct 22, 1869
Chs. B. Trego, Esq.
I have your circular of Oct 15, informing me of my election as a member of the American Phil. Society of Philadelphia. You will please accept my thanks for the honor conferred upon me. Will you have the goodness too inform me if a complete set of the publications of the society can be obtained?
Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was one of the first women to be inducted into the American Philosophical Society. At the time she was inducted, Mary Somerville (one of Maria’s heroes) and Elizabeth C. Agassiz were inducted. Before that time, only one other woman had become a member – Ekaterina Dashkov in 1789. While she had asked her father, William, to write her letter accepting her membership as the first woman at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Maria wrote her own letter as seen above. By this time, she was at Vassar College and as an older woman and Vassar’s professor of Astronomy, more independent, comfortable, and accepted as a woman acting alone. Times had also changed – it was twenty years since the AAAS induction and while a very few things had changed for women – at least writing a letter for herself and not asking a man in her family to do so!


A Simple Coat Peg Tells a Story of Nantucket’s Tinsmith

Peleg's coat peg

This was previously published in Yesterday’s Island this summer and on my Nantucket Chronicle column, “The Nation of Nantucket.” If you keep up with “Maria Mitchell’s Attic,” then you should know who Peleg Mitchell Junior is!

It’s small, oddly shaped, has a screw-like quality at one end and a rounded nub at the other, and has a red and white gummed label adhered to it. People often ask, “What is that?” as they peer into the case to see some of the smaller items in the Mitchell House collection.

“That, is Peleg Mitchell’s coat peg,” we answer. Who is Peleg Mitchell and why do we have his coat peg? Peleg Mitchell Jr, like Maria Mitchell herself, was the youngest of ten children born to Peleg Mitchell Sr and his wife, Lydia Cartwright Mitchell in 1802. Peleg Mitchell Jr (Peleg) lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria Mitchell’s family moved to the Pacific National Bank when she was 18. Her father, as bank cashier, was in charge of the entire bank and housing above the bank came with the position. Thus, when they moved out, William sold the home at 1 Vestal to his youngest sibling, Peleg; the MMA has the original bill of sale.

Peleg was a tinsmith. In fact, he and his partner James Austin were the only tinsmiths practicing at the time so they had a very busy shop. Think of tinware, in part, as the Tupperware of the time – tin was used for all sorts of things – lanterns, candleholders, food containers, colanders, graters, lanterns, boxes . . . it was fairly cheap, easy to fabricate quickly, and just plain ubiquitous. Peleg was a leader within the Friends (Quaker) meeting and with the schisms that occurred in the faith, he would become a Wilburite while his older brother William would become a Gurneyite. As a leader within the meeting, Peleg also hosted some smaller meetings at the house at 1 Vestal Street in the front sitting room. One of his (probably) many tinsmithing apprentices was one of his nephews, William Forster Mitchell, Maria’s younger brother. This tinsmithing background would help – in part – Forster (as he was referred to) assist in the founding of the Industrial Arts Department at Howard College – Howard University today – in Washington, DC. He and his Uncle Peleg must have been close after this apprenticeship as they also corresponded quite a bit when Forester was the superintendent of Haverford College. Their letters can be found in the Haverford archives – it was founded as a Quaker school.

Back to the coat peg. It is small object – but one of many that the MMA has in its collection at the Mitchell House that belonged to the family. Made of whalebone, it likely screwed into a panel somewhere in the house that was strapped to the plaster – serving as a special coat hook just for Peleg. The large gummed label was unfortunately but likely done in the early part of the twentieth century so that it wasn’t misplaced or someone in the family did not forget what it was and to whom it belonged. In any case, it was cataloged as part of the collection in the 1950s. The donor is unknown which may mean that it drifted about the 1 Vestal Street house a bit; the house became a museum in 1903 coming to the MMA directly from the family so anything that was in the house from Peleg’s and his wife’s time in it simply remained. I have a feeling this might have been still in its place in the wall into the 1950s before someone chose to remove it for safekeeping maybe while some conservation work was being done or so that someone didn’t paint over it or forget what it was and to whom it belonged.


You Are a Rock!

Library Structural Rock

I have to say, I did tell this rock you see here, “you are a rock!” the other day. That was, after I had gone back over to the Mitchell House and I was alone of course.

For maybe eighty or so years, this rock was doing a serious job. It was a big support. I am not kidding you. The other day, I was handed this rock by the mason – Wayne Morris and his mason tender, his daughter Andrea – while I stopped in to check on the work in the basement of our soon to be Research Center. Andrea pulled the rock out of a bucket. Wayne said, “You know where that was?” Turns out this rock was filling a void between a support beam and a concrete block – basically acting as a filler to hold it all in place.

Now, before we all exclaim, “What?!” we have to think about when and how this was done. It was done in the 1920s, so the gentleman who did this was likely born in at least the 1870s. That – and his growing up and beginnings of work life – being a time when he would have learned from and been trained by carpenters and others who worked in the mid-nineteenth century. So this rock, while something we would not do today, was a perfectly acceptable building material in the 1920s still.

I have seen this before – not just in our historic MMA buildings but all around Nantucket and even off-island. I sit on the board of a very old organization here on the island and recently when we had work done to a building we found boulders and large rocks being used to hold up building and landscaping components from the nineteenth century. Heck, there are still many foundations on island that are rubble or even one rock holding up a long expanse of a sill. It works, still does, may very likely to continue to work even when we are all dead and gone. They knew how to build then – with limited building technologies compared to today.

Despite all this, the rock is not going back. But it will live on as a testament to the builders of our past!


Vestal Street Update

IMG_3271 3 Vestal Sash

Been a busy summer on so many fronts and boy, am I tired! Lots still to do though. Museums may close up but that doesn’t mean we stop working on any of our many fronts!

Hinchman House is now nice and sparkly with a brand new paint job thanks to Jim Tyler and his wonderful crew! After they finished Hinchman, they returned a few weeks later and painted the trim, sash, basement foundation, and the chimney at the Astronomer’s Cottage! I made a visit to the Historic District Commission for permission on a new front door at the Astronomer’s Cottage as well. The current one is circa 1965 or so and our neighbors very nicely donated a much older door they had in their basement. Thus, fairly soon, we will have a new door on the Astronomer’s Cottage at Number 3 Vestal that is not rotting away! The Astronomer’s Cottage is ca. 1830 and from some of the images I took of the window trim and sash, you can certainly see that.

Next up, shingling and re-roofing the Astronomer’s Cottage and repairing and replacing gutters and downspouts at Hinchman House. Much of this work on the two properties is being funded in part by a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund (MCF) grant. It is a 1:1 match and we are still wrapping up that match amount should you wish to make a contribution. MCF provided $117,000.00 and MMA has to match the remainder.

More still to come – including work on the Research Center and a site visit by the structural engineer whom I have worked with for many years. He will be here to begin an assessment on the 1908 Vestal Street Observatory and 1922 Astronomical Study (the brick parapet addition) which will be another conservation project in the MMA’s future.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Steamer Castalia. Sept. 12 {1873}. We are on the 13th day of our passage and only today am I able to write. The passage has not been bad but the pitchy motion which the head winds gave is very sickening and I was scarcely able to move for 7 days. Certainly for 3 days I was violently sick if I moved. And the worst sickness was the giddiness of the 8th and 9th days when if I moved, I was faint, or, my sight failed and things dimmed for a few minutes.
I did not walk across the deck for 10 days, although I crawled up nearly every day . . .

And this was how, Maria Mitchell’s second trip to Europe in 1873 ended. Seasick. She had spent three months in England and Russia, gaining access to the Observatory at Pulkova. She had travelled with her nephew, William Mitchell Kendall, and at times her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall and her husband, Joshua. You may have read the hysterically funny piece about Maria becoming locked in the train bathroom that I recently posted – this was part of that same trip. No matter where you are raised, even on an island, it doesn’t mean you won’t get seasick! And while this passage doesn’t detail astronomy or Vassar or women’s rights or women and education, I think it shows that Maria – or MM as she referred to herself and signed letters to family and close friends – was just as human as everyone else – even if she was America’s first woman astronomer!


The Sound of Silence

no electricity

A few weeks ago, we were cast back in time – happily! All of sudden, we noticed the power was out. Silence fell across Vestal Street and Town. No whirring noises, no air conditioners cranking, no radio noise . . . nothing but silence. It was positively wonderful!

What did I do for those brief but glorious moments? I retreated to the 1825 Kitchen where I began to sew new tie-backs for the ones that need to be replaced in the Front Bedroom of the Mitchell House – something I have been meaning to do for a long time now. I sat, with the cool breeze coming in the door, and the sun pouring in on my work. It was delightful. I listened to the birds and the breeze and heard not much else until I noticed a noise and realized, sadly, that the electricity was back on. The tie-backs now await a better moment – perhaps at home in front of the television – though maybe on our deck in the evening is the best choice for such a quiet and calming activity.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

. . . I am having a very good summer; doing nothing . . . . Whittier is lovely! He is seventy-six years old, and his friends say he fails neither outwardly nor inwardly. When I came away, he came out to the wagon and said “When thee sees the 400 Vassar girls, give them all the love of an old bachelor.” What a pity the 400 girls cannot see him!
I try not to look far ahead. The changes at Vassar are very trying . . .

The above is from a letter that Maria Mitchell wrote to Mrs. Raymond – the wife of the former president of Vassar College. President Raymond died fairly suddenly in 1878 much to the shock and sadness of many. While he was officially the second president of Vassar College, the first president had not made it to opening day. Maria Mitchell kept up her relationship with the family and it is evident from this letter that the Raymonds were familiar with the Mitchell family as Maria refers to the first names of her nieces throughout the letter. Her familiarity with John Greenleaf Whittier I have noted before in this blog; many of the Mitchells were friendly with Whittier.


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)