Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

August 19 {1857}. There are four great men whose haunts I mean to seek, and on whose footsteps I mean to stand: Newton, Shakespeare, Milton, and Johnson.

To-day I told the driver to take me to St. Martin’s, where the guide-book says that Newton lived. He put me down at the Newton Hotel, but I looked in vain to its top to see anything like an observatory.

I went into a wine-shop near, and asked a girl, who was pouring out a dram, in which house Newton lived. She pointed, not to the hotel, but to the house next to a church, and said, “that’s it – don’t you see a place on the top? That’s where he used to study nights.”

It is a little, oblong-shaped observatory, built apparently of wood, and blackened by age . . . .”

Blackened no doubt by the wood ash and soot found in the air throughout over-crowded nineteenth century London. We always think about London being very foggy in the nineteenth century but frankly a lot of it was wood and coal ash as the nineteenth century grew older, particularly as factories developed and belched all of that into the air – think Sherlock Holmes in the 1880s.

But Maria Mitchell, while starting in Europe as a young woman’s chaperone, also knew that this tour of Europe was a great learning experience – the equivalent of a college education she could not have. Doors were thrown open to her around Europe – in particular at all of the observatories that dotted the continent. She was not just well-known – she was famous.

JNLF

Simply (Or, Not Simply) Messing About In Boats

Lofting

In the Mitchell family’s time, Vestal Street was not a quiet place. A cooperage, a boat building shop, and the gaol (jail) were all located on what was originally referred to as Prison Lane. Around the corner on the corner of Main and Milk Streets was the Town building where at one time William Mitchell taught before he started his own private school. Add to that background noise – albeit no modern machinery so it was more pleasant – the likelihood of carts going up and down the street for these two shops with supplies and carting away their products, people walking by, other animals roaming free, and a person’s calash (cart) or even a horse – though in Town walking pretty much ruled.

The boatshop certainly interests me – as do all the other activities of course. The boatshop was located on the corner of Vestal and Bloom Streets. Boats were a bit of my world growing up. I spent a LOT of time on the ferry. And then, my Nana loved boats. She didn’t care if it was the Uncatena or a sport fishing boat, she just wanted to be on the water. I believe she went sport-fishing not to fish, but for the boat ride! She used to take us out on harbor cruises too – I remember being seasick quite often because she didn’t care what the weather was – she never got seasick, except once. Then there is me; no matter how long I have been on boats (since I was a year old basically), I get seasick in choppy seas and of course rough seas. Marrying a US Coast Guard officer did not change that – he can eat a bowl of chili and drink a cup of coffee in high seas (I’m talking 30 feet!). Ugh.

My world of boats expanded with my husband, Eric. He maintains and repairs quite a few sailboats – and a few power boats – here on the island. His focus has been mainly on wooden boats but he will do fiberglass as well. With a degree in naval architecture, he also designs and builds boats but he has never had the time to focus on building. Thanks to an expanded crew at his boatshop, they are starting to finally build – though his own designs remain on the computer for now. Nantucket once had a myriad of small boat shops – even building whaleships at Brant Point. Since the first half of the twentieth century, building has slowly begun to fade away on Nantucket. There are still a few people building and I am happy to say Eric is helping to grow that number with this venture.

They have started with a wooden boat that is excellent for the waters around Nantucket – a Haven 12 ½. 12 ½s were originally designed by Nathanael Herreshoff – the “Wizard of Bristol” – who is also the original designer of the Alerion which now graces Nantucket’s waters and my husband repairs and maintains. Herreshoff’s 12 ½ was a full keel boat which is not good for shallow waters. The Haven 12 ½ was designed by Joel White, a naval architect and boat builder from Maine who was also the son of author, E. B. White – yes, THAT E. B. White. The Haven is a centerboard boat – meaning it is good for shallow waters because it does not have a full keel – the centerboard acts as the deeper full keel would but can be raised and lowered at will by the sailor to keep the boat safe from running aground in shallow waters.

Eric and his crew are currently lofting the boat. After building a platform, they began the painstaking process of drawing out the lines plans of the boat on the platform – basically drawing the designer’s plan to full scale on a 16’ by 20’ wood platform. Once they have the pattern all drawn out they can then begin the process of making molds for the frames which you see here in this image.

What, do you say, does this have to do with Maria? Well, it’s a little piece of what she would have seen more regularly as boatshops popped up even in backyards as boat builders built whaleboats and dories and then other small craft for fishing to fill the need. She would have been able to see the whaleships being built at Brant Point and she and her father, William, certainly had a hand in whaling – William rated the chronometers for all the whaleships homeported on Nantucket (roughly ninety) and thus likely rated every chronometer on Nantucket – and those of visiting ships as well. When she was 14, Maria started that same task on her own. And, her brother, Andrew, ran away to see as a young teenager and would later serve on a ship during the Civil War. Boatbuilding is one of the oldest trades in the world and there are some on island who continue to ply this trade. It reminds one of the past. Stay tuned – I will keep you up to date from time-to-time on the building.

JNLF

Mallow is Out on Vestal Street!!

Vestal St. Mallow 2015

Here on Vestal Street in the wildflower garden in front of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, the Rose Mallow is in full bloom. It is such a tropical looking plant. It is in the Hibiscus family but is native to Nantucket. I remember as a child walking up the what then seemed to be a huge hill at the Black Water Tower Beach and looking out over the pond and seeing it all in bloom like a sea of pink. Today, you don’t just see it in the wild as, happily, people more and more are bringing native species into their gardens. So come take a look at the mallow here on Vestal Street and keep your eyes peeled as you venture in wet, sunny (near the ponds and marshes) areas where you can find it on island.

JNLF

Another Book from the Special Collection

Experimental Science Cover

I have nothing more to report on this really then how wonderful is that cover? The gilt science equipment and then the other designs in black on the cover. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, binding tape was applied in order to save the binding and cover from completely detaching. This was done often and thought to be a good conservation move but now we know the damage that can be done. Until we have funds to make the repairs and remove the tape – a trained book conservator needs to complete the work, not me – the tape remains. It is doing damage but it’s also keeping the book intact at least.

JNLF

Wallace Nutting Was Here

Nutting Image

If you are familiar with the Colonial Revival style then you should be familiar with Wallace Nutting. He could be referred to as the father of the Colonial Revival movement. His photographs of historic sites with people, mainly women, dressed in colonial inspired dress working or sitting in colonial style settings in historic homes were exceptionally popular during the first decades of the twentieth century. A minister and antiquarian, as well as a photographer and furniture maker, Nutting lectured, taught, wrote books, and was an antiques expert. His reproduction furniture is so good that it can pass as original. But he is most well known for his photographs and at a young age I was taught about these photographs. It was my Father actually who noted quite a few years ago now that this image you see here is a Nutting – we have several of this image in the collection. I do not know who the woman is but she is standing on the back porch of Mitchell House at the entry to the 1825 Kitchen. Not much has changed although you can see that the shingles were once painted – we still have the remnants of this paint on the east side of the house if that lets you know how long those shingles have lasted! So the Mitchell House also got the Nutting treatment at one point. He was here on the island – and lived in Massachusetts where most of his subjects were found. There is at least one other print I know about of an island building – 99 Main Street – though I am sure there are more.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

July 29 {1873}. En route to St. Petersburg and we are told that we keep this car right through. We have sleeping car thus. The lady’s toilette is round and into that the Conductor locked me this morning . . . . I found I could open the window and get air and there was a very comfortable arm chair, but I was distressed about Willie who could not know where I was.

After an hour I put my head out of the window just as Willie did the same. He was delighted as I was. When the next stopping place came the Conductor was at hand at once and let me out. Willie had been much alarmed . . . .

On her second trip to Europe in 1873, Maria traveled with her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Phebe’s husband, Joshua, and their son, William Mitchell Kendall – the family always referred to him as Willie. At one point, Maria and Willie struck out on their own, visiting the Observatory at Pulkova. I came across this amusing entry that I had not read before and laughed as I imagined Maria stuck in the bathroom – haven’t we all been there before – but also her sixteen or seventeen year old nephew panicked that his aunt was missing and in a foreign country and on a train to boot!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Denmark

Danish Journal on medal

Not exactly so, but 167 years after she spotted the comet that helped to bring her worldwide fame and her receipt of a medal from the King of Denmark for her discovery, Maria’s medal is still noteworthy. There is an organization in Denmark that celebrates these medals and a recent journal article featured Maria’s gold medal. It turns out that her medal is the only one that has the awardees’ name engraved on the edge! My first thought was, “Is that because she was the first woman to receive the medal?” but of course we don’t know exactly but it is a nice thought and maybe it actually is the case.

In any case, they asked for permission to use images of the medal and Maria Mitchell on the publication for which the MMA Archives and Special Collections receives a free and a copy of the publication for the Archives. This one is all in Dutch but I am happy to say that Maria made the cover – as you can see.

JNLF

A Pony in the Pony Lot

Ham Pony Field

This is the Eleanor Ham Pony Field on Mill Street; sometimes referred to as the Ham Pony Lot (at least in my book – not literal book mind you). What struck me as nice when I saw this is that horses had a stop-over there one morning as I was heading in to work. Horses and ponies and other farm animals do not frequent this lot much anymore. The land was given to the Nantucket Historical Association about 1979. At one point around Town, there were open spaces that were communally used for grazing. William Mitchell had a plot of land further up Vestal Street near the Quaker cemetery on what is now Quaker Road. There he kept his horse and did a small bit of farming; though the family joke was that he grew more flowers than edibles because he loved bright colors and as a Quaker, bright colors were frowned upon.

JNLF

Painting Has Begun on the Library Wing!

Sanding the porch and steel windows

Sanding the porch and steel windows

Now that the masonry is complete on the MMA’s Former Library – soon to become the EcologyLab – the painters have moved in. The first order of business is the original steel windows. A few will need repairs at a later time but in order to stop the rust from growing, we have gone ahead and painted the windows. The painter, Jim Tyler, and his crew began with a special primer paint for steel. It’s a lovely warm brown color and we all toyed for more than a few moments about keeping the windows brown. But historically, they were white so the crew applied several coats of white to the window sashes and trim. Next up will be painting the gutters and downspouts and finally the stucco. The stucco will be returned to its more grayish brown color which it was originally. The stucco we all see today does not appear to be the original final coating – a new layer of stucco was applied at some point in the mid-20th century. The paint on the stucco will be a mineral paint which is environmentally friendly and will also allow the stucco to breathe and release moisture, not trap it and cause humidity and water issues for the building.

You may have noticed some re-shingling on the east side along the street as well. This was done by carpenter Matt Anderson who works on historic structures. We noted that the building had only been re-shingled one time before on this elevation. Anderson also repaired and replaced gutters and downspouts on the wood portion of the building.

The special steel primer coat on the steel windows.

The special steel primer coat on the steel windows.

So keep your eyes open as you come up Vestal Street and stay tuned because we continue to plan for the interior. We have had the building cleaned by a professional company from off-island in anticipation of the natural science collections moving in when all work is completed. Currently, we are working with Landmark Facilities Group – an environmental engineering group that has worked on Mitchell House and on a system for the Archives and Special Collections – to develop an appropriate HVAC system for the collections and lab spaces. So while there might always be a lot of activity on the building – we are still working on it!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

1875, June 20.

A meeting of the Officers of Congress was called at the house of Mrs. Hanaford, 5 Summit Ave, Jersey City. The weather was intensely cold . . . It was a question who should preside. Mrs. Hanaford thought the Chairman of the Executive Committee should and I had been told that I should, etc. The question was settled by non-arrival of Chairman of Ex. Com . . . . I made many blunders, as I have never presided before, but I continued for 4 hours. We did a few good things . . . . The most serious question in my mind was the looseness in regard to membership . . . . I spoke for a tight rule in this respect, and begged for high-toned character in our papers, and for a very very high toned morality in our membership. I was amused to find myself talked of as so “decidedly conservative . . . .”

Maria Mitchell was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women and president for a term. Its congresses were held yearly in various places, typically in the Northeast. The Mrs. Hanaford she refers to is the Rev. Phebe Coffin Hanaford, a Quaker daughter of Nantucket, who would become the first woman ordained as a Universalist minister in New England.

I, too, find it amusing that Maria was talked of as conservative but I can also see that as the women’s movement grew that there were more women involved whom Maria would feel were not as “high-toned” or were not as “moral” as others. Schisms occurred within the women’s rights movement and while Maria’s first and foremost push for women was women in education, she did believe and fight for women’s rights. But did you know that she turned down a speaking engagement offered to her by Susan B. Anthony? I would say that well illustrates where Maria’s thoughts and allegiance were at.

JNLF