And Now We Await Our Inspection . . .

Well, it looks as if we are pretty much finished with the Research Center! We have some minor items, including cleaning (by the MMA staff), window washing, and the installation of the blinds, but we await our final inspection by the Town now. So let us hope! Then, will come moving in all the collections – including the former circulating collection of books which went off for something of a cleaning and then await me to vacuum each and every book as I re-shelve them. Takes me back a few years to when I cleaned the Special Collection books – with the help of some Mitchell House interns in summer – but this will be just vacuuming ̶ I don’t have to brush and sponge! Yeah!

So stay tuned. I know the Natural Science Department has some special collections open houses that will be free and no reservations necessary to members and non-members alike so take the opportunity to see the newly spruced up space this summer!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March {1857} I found from Nantucket to Chicago more attention than I desired. I had a short seat in one of the cars, through the night. I did not think it large enough for two, and so coiled myself up and went to sleep. There were men standing all around. Once one of them came along and said something about there being room for him on my seat. Another man said, “she’s asleep, don’t disturb her.” I was too selfish to offer the other half of a short seat, and too tired to reason about the man’s being, possibly, more tired than I. . . .One peculiarity in travelling from East to West is, that you lose the old men . . .

My first image is Maria, bonnet on, long skirts and high-top shoes and petticoats and slips beneath with her legs tucked up under her on this train car seat. That’s what I do on the steamship! In my jeans, coat, comfortable sweater, sneakers . . .But the image doesn’t work for a woman of the nineteenth century. Though she is later offered a window seat so that she can prop herself up to sleep which makes me think she really was reclining to some degree. Perhaps the men in the car didn’t think it appropriate! It was not for the time – but I could see Maria not caring because she wanted to be comfortable and, “Darn It!,” she was tired!

I close with her comment about old men – think about all those books you have read about the “wild west” and the likely not accurate movies, not many old men, for several reasons.


Women’s History Month Is Here!

Well, the month is upon us! And just in time, Cricket Media has included Maria Mitchell in their March edition of Cobblestone along with several other important women in nineteenth century history.

Another reason to celebrate Maria even more is that 2018 marks her 200th birthday and the MMA will be hosting numerous activities around this milestone event this year.

To start: Please join us at the Atheneum on March 21st when we co-host with the Atheneum a Women in Science Panel at 7PM. In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mitchell’s birth (August 1, 1818), the Maria Mitchell Association and the Nantucket Atheneum host a discussion with island women scientists who will talk about what drew them to a career in science, what that journey was like, and how we can inspire girls to want to be scientists.

The panel includes: Karen Beattie (Nantucket Conservation Foundation), Sara T. Bois (Linda Loring Nature Foundation), Regina Jorgenson (Maria Mitchell Association), Emily Molden (Land Council) and Tara Riley (Town of Nantucket). The panel will be moderated by Emily Goldstein Murphy (Maria Mitchell Association).

I will also be leading a women’s history walk on March 24th at 10AM. See our MMA online calendar for more details. Reservations are necessary!



A Trip to Beantown

A recent work-related trip up to Boston afforded me the opportunity for some professional development related field trips – and also a very gracious husband who took on the task of taking care of our three-year old son and eight-year old Siberian Husky – also known as two high energy bundles of lovable chaos – particularly when they decide to romp with one another!

My choice of hotel – historic of course! – was the lovely 1912 Fairmont Copley. I try for historic inns and hotels – of course! – and since I have already stayed at another grand dame that is even older – the Parker House Hotel (1855) – I decided to try another and one that was close to where I planned to do some museum-going and architecture-gawking. (The Copley is across the street from the Boston Public Library!)

Built on the site of the former Museum of Fine Arts that was demolished in about 1911, the Copley sits on wooden pilings drilled down into what is the swamp that Copley Square and much of the area is built on. In fact, all of the “old” buildings are built on pilings including one of my first stops on my journey – the Boston Public Library.

I took a very nice tour of the BPL having never done that before. I like to wander on my own and made sure to do that before the free tour that occurs once a day. There were about twenty people on the tour from all over, including Boston. The focus was of course on the McKim portion of the building and I have included images. I have written about the BPL before – Maria Mitchell’s nephew was a senior architect with McKim, Mead, and White and designed the library with that team. In fact, Maria’s name is inscribed on the exterior of the building. This was McKim’s way of cementing his legacy and frankly, building a palace for the people – a palace of learning for all as it continues to be today. He was involved in every level of every aspect from the statuary to the bronze doors to the tiniest detail. Further graces to the building include amazing murals by the likes of very well-known artists of the day including one of my favorites John Singer Sargent. And while I adore the late nineteenth century structure, I am almost just as captivated by the 1970s addition by Philip Johnson. And at the juncture between the nineteenth and twentieth century buildings, I spent some time in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center taking in an exhibit.

Being a walker, I decided to walk from Copley Square to the Museum of Fine Arts – about 1.5 miles one way. Not bad, but as I came to recognize my island feet are just not use to pavement walking and by my return journey after walking all over the museum and the three plus miles of round trip walking, my feet were TIRED!

But it was well worth it. While it was extremely crowed due to it being a free day and the Lunar New Year celebration, I did find some space for myself to take in my musts-sees – – my favorite artist of the eighteenth century being John Singleton Copley. My favorites – “A Boy with a Flying Squirrel” (his half-brother), “Paul Revere,” “Mary and Elizabeth Royall,” and even the piece of wood with “Corkscrew on a Nail” – that is supposedly what he painted when as a guest at a house with no corkscrew to be found. And of course, I followed that up with my nineteenth century favorite Winslow Homer and then Mary Cassatt. I even had a moment to fully take in a work of marble by Harriet Hosmer – an American sculptor who worked in Italy and whom Maria met on her trip there in 1858. Maria described her as “mad-cap” and “a little brisk pretty girl.” From her descriptions and others that I have read, I would take her as being sprite-like but also a woman who was more free to be herself and to do as she wished well outside the realm of the “woman’s sphere” – particularly among her fellow artists of Europe.

Copley’s “Boy with a Flying Squirrel.”

A trip well spent – but oh my aching feet! The Doc Marten’s Store on Newbury was a must stop for new shoes on my march back to the hotel!


“Hope Springs Eternal”

This is dramatic for what I relate this quote from Alexander Pope to, but I had really almost given up.

A few years ago, late spring came and Peleg’s grape arbor – which I have written about before – began to bud up. There are two trunks – two different grape plants. One – the larger of the two by a great deal – started to sprout its leaf buds. The other, I hoped was just a bit behind after a rough winter. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It never budded – it was killed by the winter of bitter cold and warmth and then bitter cold again. I started to worry I could lose – the MMA could lose – the entire arbor. So, desperate to try to ensure its survival, I went to many lengths to try and root the grape which is no easy task based on what I have read. I finally – after multiple attempts – resorted to taking long cuttings and placing them in some soil and then putting them in the window of the Observatory’s Seminar Room where I spend the winter – my “winter office.”

I have been watering them since October and frankly, they continued to look like dead sticks. At the beginning of February, I almost threw them out but then decided that I would wait just in case. Well, on February 7, 2018, I glanced over and – overnight it seems – leaf buds had appeared! I was elated! And now they continue to grow and one has begun to unfurl itself. I hope I can keep them going and can then plant them in place of the old one that died a few winters ago. Let’s hope. This is just another tie to the Mitchell past.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1880, Feb. 16. I sent a note to Mr. Swan this morning to ask about the power that I may have to vote for school officers and the ask where I must register, what tax I must pay, etc. I also suggested to Dr. Webster to write to another of our Trustees. They may rule us out as citizens but we have lived for years within the precincts of some town. . . It is possible that we must hold real estate in the town, but I know that my Father voted although he did not even pay a poll tax.

Here, Maria is likely referring to a Vassar College trustee and also an attorney, who served as the attorney and legal adviser to Matthew Vassar. But what is of most interest is that Maria is trying to figure out how she might vote – not for Vassar College officers, but Poughkeepsie school board members. (Dr. Webster was then Vassar’s resident physician, having replaced Dr. Alida Avery.) This journal entry followed upon the heels of Maria’s younger sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, being voted in as the first woman to serve on the Cambridge Massachusetts School Board along with another woman, Sarah P. Jacobs, in December 1879. It was the first time that women were allowed to vote for a political office in Cambridge and the two were the first women to hold any office in Cambridge. In fact, women were allowed to vote for school board members throughout Massachusetts – think about how that came about. Maria seized on this accomplishment of her sister’s and the fact that women could vote for school boards in Massachusetts, hoping to make some changes in New York – or at least Poughkeepsie. She also likely felt that this would help to support not just education but girls and women in education and further, women’s higher education i.e. college.


A Good Chair ̵ Redux

Since I have been spending quite a bit of time outfitting the Research Center and looking for the right chairs, I thought I would re-blog this from 2013.

Quite awhile ago, I wrote about some of my collection addictions, including pottery shards, 19th century kitchen mirrors, and of course, enamelware. Well, here is another one for you.

I love chairs. Yes, this is another collection addiction of mine. But not all chairs – chairs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Typically, I like plain, simple wood chairs with a horizontal piece or two of wood for the back and a plain, thick wood seat. Simple, not a lot of turns to the wood, and not a lot of decorative features or paint.

Several years ago, I had a meeting at the home of the leader of a group I was working with. She owned the Obed Macy house, very much untouched and quite a remarkable house. Yes, Obed was the Nantucket historian (among other things), as well as the son of island entrepreneur Judith Macy, and the nephew of the island “she-pirate” Kezia Coffin. We met outside on the side porch which was a late 19th century addition to the house and one that certainly reflected what life was like in the period it was added to the house. The owner had brought out every chair in her home. I was on a chair high (not a highchair!) – here I had my choice of nineteenth chairs to sit on. Since I was one of the first to arrive, I took my time picking out which chair I was going to sit on – I kid you not. I was like Goldilocks − though I was grown-up enough not to sit on every chair to decided which one I was going to claim for the meeting! I went on and on and likely on and on about all these lovely chairs to her.

Unfortunately, the day came several years later when she was faced with having to sell her beloved home to move off-island. She called me. She wanted to know if I wanted any of her chairs since she remembered how much I went on and on about them. It was a mixture of emotion because losing this island resident was a loss for the island and for its history and historic architecture. I went to her home a few days before she was going to have her sale and helped her move items from the house out onto the lovely 19th century side porch where I first reveled in her chair collection and also out into the large, simple backyard that looked like it too had not been touched since the 19th century. She told me to take whichever chairs I wanted as she wanted me to have them. Depressing. I told her I would not take but that I would buy. We had a little back and forth but she finally relented. Then, I had to choose and it was quite agonizing. Not wanting to be a chair hog, I limited myself.

I now have two matching and two others sitting around my dining room table made from salvaged Nantucket pine floorboards. We refer to them as “Helen’s chairs” – their previous owner. She likely found them here on Nantucket; one or more may have even come with the house when she bought it. We eat every meal sitting in them, spend time with our family in long discussions and laughter sitting in them, and each time I sit, touch, dust, or move them, I think of Helen and the house these chairs once sat in and the conversations and people they must have witnessed over the many years. A simple wood chair – a witness to history and time.


Almost There! Research Center Update


The door needed to be made wider for accessibility so we re-used its historic parts to do so.

The heat is on. The plaster walls are complete in the accessible bathroom, the new wall is complete in the accessible bathroom, the remainder of the outlets and lights are complete, emergency lights have been replaced, exit signs installed, and we have one-coat of epoxy on the basement floors where the collections will be stored (note – its currently shinier than star covered patent leather clogs!). Several styles of chairs have made a pass through the building and been sat upon by several for comfort testing and height requirements. Alarm company has completed its install. Microscope chairs are ordered and the knobs are on the cabinets! And the state-of-the-art collections cabinets have been fabricated and patiently wait on the other side of the Sound for a call to bring them over.

First coat of epoxy.

Now, we await the bathroom’s plumbing and lab sink with its accessible eyewash. Then a few more items that require plumbing for the HVAC completion, a structural engineer’s inspection, and environmental engineer’s inspection and THEN, we can apply for our final inspection! It’s been a long-haul but nothing comes easy when you are trying to work with a historic building and respect its historic fabric and work with its wonderful idiosyncrasies!

All that said, I will not exhale until the dotted line has been signed on. Maybe then I will finally sleep at night!

Stay tuned!


Stitch, Stitch, Stitch: Nantucket Sewing Circles of the Nineteenth Century

Maria Mitchell once said, “When I see a woman sew, I think, what a capacity she has for using a micrometer!” So, maybe what I am about to write would be a bit disappointing to her. However, I believe she was likely pleased by what sewing circles on Nantucket could accomplish for her fellow Nantucketers. As, the great-granddaughter of a milliner and extremely talented seamstress (she hand-smocked about twenty dresses for me when I was an infant and did all of that with rheumatoid arthritis!) and the granddaughter of two talented women of sewing and needlework, my apologies to Maria . . . .

The sewing circles that arose on Nantucket in the nineteenth century were formed in part because of the Great Fire of 1846, which, along with the demise of whaling and the lure of the Gold Rush, helped to bring about an economic depression that would last decades and cause Nantucket’s population to decrease from its height of around 10,000 in the 1830s to fewer than 2,000 people by the late nineteenth century. The sewing circles helped struggling families by providing them with clothes, food, and even paying their rent.

Many of the organizations rose from within the churches of the island and all were founded, managed, and run by women. The Ladies Union Circle of the First Congregational Church, established in 1846, was followed by similar groups, such as the Unitarian Sewing Society and the Ladies Wesleyan Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, both established in 1850. The women gathered together to create, sew, and sell their creations to raise money for those in need and for their own churches. The groups not only generated the money to help others; they also provided a social venue for those who remained on Nantucket and witnessed the quickly deteriorating social fabric of their island home. The societies served as a positive network and support group for their members.

The women’s activities, accomplished many good deeds, and one group, the Unitarians, was even able to purchase a parish house for the church with funds they raised – no small task. Additionally, the sewing circles gave rise to other groups that many islanders heavily relied upon in the nineteenth century: the Relief Association, the Children’s Aid Society, and the Ladies Howard Society, which could date its beginnings to the era of the American Revolution. The Relief Association is still in existence today; assisting island families in need.

The act of helping your fellow islander is something that has been a constant on Nantucket, back to when the first English came to the island to settle in 1659. Some of it is born of the isolation of the island, but it is largely that the island is akin to one big family and that is what you do, you take care of your family.



Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Given our recent weather, I wanted to re-blog this from 2014.

1857 Jan 22. Hard winters are becoming the order of things. Winter before last was hard, last winter was harder and this surpasses all winters known before. We have been frozen in to our Island now since the 6th. No one said much about it for the first two or three days. The sleighing was good and all the world was out trying their horses on Main St. – the race-course of the world. Day after day passed and the thermometer sank to a lower point and the minds rose to a higher, and sleighing became uncomfortable and even the dullest man longed for the cheer of a newspaper. The Inquirer came out for a while, but at length had nothing to tell and nothing to Inquire about and so kept its peace . . . .

Inside the houses we amuse ourselves in various ways. Frank’s family and ours form a club, meeting three times a week and writing machine poetry in great quantitites. Occassionally something very droll puts us in a roar of laughter. Frank, Ellen and Kate I think are rather the smartest, tho’ Mr. Macy has written rather the best of all.

Some things never change and Maria Mitchell and her family were confronted with a cold and snowy winter, rendering them – and the island – house-bound due to the bitter weather. Maria writes in her journal of the sitting room at the Pacific Bank − where the family lived on the second floor − not getting above forty degrees in the evening, though she implies this was fairly snug which helps you get a better feeling for what winter home interiors were like in those days. With constant clouds, Maria found that she could not observe but it seems she likely got to know her sister-in-law Ellen much better (Ellen married Francis “Frank” Macy Mitchell – younger brother of Maria in April 1853), as well as Mr. Macy – Alfred Macy – a lawyer and the head of the Coffin School for several years. Alfred would marry Anne Mitchell (younger sister of Maria) in May of 1857 – perhaps the confined quarters help to kindle the romance all the more!