Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

March 16, 1885. In February, 1831, I counted seconds for father, who observed the annular eclipse at Nantucket. I was twelve and a half years old. In 1885, fifty-four years later, I counted seconds for a class of students at Vassar; it was the same eclipse, but the sun was only about half-covered. Both days were perfectly clear and cold.

In the 1850s, this eclipse observation was “documented” post-eclipse by Herminia B. Dassel, an artist who had come to the island to paint Abram Quary, the last male Wampanoag on the island. One of the portraits is at the Atheneum, the other at the Nantucket Historical Association. The interesting thing about the Mitchell eclipse double portrait is that it is not Maria posed with her father but instead the youngest Mitchell sister, Kate (Eliza Katherine). Maria refused to sit for the portrait. The artist would take many liberties in her interpretation of the event, the equipment, and Kate’s appearance (she looks like her eighteen year old self, not twelve year old Maria, and is not dressed as a Quaker would be). William Mitchell and the artist were finally able to convince Maria to sit for a portrait. You will find this portrait on our website, the more recognized one of her peering through a telescope and dressed as a Quaker. Maria would become close to the artist, becoming the godmother of the artist’s daughter. Dassel would also paint a portrait of William Mitchell. We have a photograph of the portrait but sadly the portrait was lost within the family.

JNLF

It’s Women’s History Month – Learn Something New About The Women Who Shaped Our Island Home! Grace Brown Gardner, 1880 – 1973

Grace Brown Gardner.  Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Grace Brown Gardner. Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Grace Brown Gardner, educated in Nantucket public schools, earned a bachelor’s degree in botany from Cornell University and a master’s degree from Brown University. She taught first in the ’Sconset School, and then in New Bedford, in Fall River, and at Framingham Normal School before returning to the island in 1942 after approximately forty years of teaching. She was an active member and trustee of the Maria Mitchell Association, the Nantucket Atheneum, and the Nantucket Historical Association.

Grace Brown Gardner is renowned for her compilation of scrapbooks chronicling island life, history, and people – a lifelong occupation that began in her father’s newspaper office – and for her love of the island’s natural history. Today, the fifty-two scrapbooks are an important resource for anyone doing Nantucket research; they are housed in the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library. Other of her books and some ephemera are located at the Maria Mitchell Association’s Archives and Special Collections. Natural science specimens that she collected for the MMA reside in the MMA’s natural science collections.

She lived in her family home at 33 Milk Street – once known as the Big Shop – and the building that played host to the second anti-slavery meeting on Nantucket.

JNLF

March Is Women’s History Month

Suffrage Statue

And as I stated a few posts ago, every month and everyday should be Women’s History Month.

One way to honor the women who have made our world what it is – and the young girls and women who are following in their footsteps – is to learn something new about a woman in history from your community, your family, or who has contributed nationally or internationally – from big to small contributions – every contribution means something.

And here is another thing to think about when contemplating the role of women in our society – did you know, that of all the monuments on the National Mall in Washington, DC, none has been built exclusively to honor women in our history? The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) has been striving to change that for many years. In December, their bill to form a commission was signed into law – meaning now they can fund, staff, and aid a commission to determine the feasibility of such a museum (it’s a long and tedious process). In the past, such commissions for monuments and museums on the Mall were government funded but this time – and from now on (guess they figured the ones to be the first to fund it privately would be women because WE CAN DO IT!) – it has to all come from private monies. There is one spot left on the Mall for one more museum. In the words of the NWHM, being on the Mall would mean mainstreaming women’s history. Mitchell House is a charter member of the NWHM. This is the same group that raised the funds to bring the sculpture you see here out of the Capitol basement (Yes, the founding mothers of women’s rights were relegated to the basement) and into the Rotunda. Lucretia Coffin Mott – a native Nantucketer, Quaker, and distant cousin of Maria’s – Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are featured in this sculpture.

This is a group well-worth the support of all of us. It’s high time our government and all of us, “remembered the ladies.”

JNLF

Women’s Suffrage and Lady Gaga

Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

I have posted this during Women’s History Month before but because it is March and again Women’s History Month, I think it’s worth repeating. It’s clever and helps to tell an important story in women’s history while giving it a bit of a 21st century twist. It comes via the National Women’s History Project.

http://soomopublishing.com/suffrage/

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

Feb 4 {1871}

My dear Sally,

Anne Maria wants thee to give or lend her that cameo pin. She thinks that she would like to wear it. I have been to Phil{Adelphia} again, and to Baltimore and really enjoyed it. I found in Baltimore some very nice schools. I met the family of Ephraim Gardner at one of my lectures.

Of course I have made some money, but I have charged too little. So, now, just as I have no applications, I have raised my price. It is a very easy thing to do, as for an audience of 250 I do not need to raise my voice at all.

I feel very independent at Vassar because I find that even at the rate II have charged in lecturing, it pays better, a great deal than Vassar. Of course it is not a desirable business. I stood for the first time in Baltimore and found it just as easy.

Anne Maria (or Annie Maria as her family called her) was the only child of William Forster Mitchell and his wife Charlotte Dow Mitchell. She was, of course, named for two of her aunts. The cameo Maria refers to in this letter to her eldest sister is a cameo Maria acquired in Italy on her 1858 trip. She purchased it for her mother. This cameo has descended through the Mitchell family – Annie Maria’s line – and is still in the family. It was loaned to me for an exhibition I created on Maria and Nantucket women in 2007. Obviously, Sally did loan – or in this case did give –it to Annie Maria.

No matter where Maria went, she met someone from Nantucket – the same story continues today for Nantucketers – even halfway across the world. What I find interesting is her discussion of increasing her fees for lectures – Maria was never paid an equal amount to that of the male professors at Vassar during her tenure and it was a constant source of battles for her. But obviously, the lecture circuit helped to pay the bills.

JNLF

In Celebration of Black History Month

The steamship ISLAND HOME. Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

The steamship ISLAND HOME. Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Frankly, every month (read day) should be Black History Month and every month (read day, again) should be Women’s History Month. In my travels through island history, and particularly island women’s history, I have never ceased to be amazed by the remarkable people who have called Nantucket home. Maria Mitchell would want you to know about each and every person – likely saying they did more than she. One woman who has fallen through the cracks is Hannah Cook Boston. Many are familiar with the name Absalom Boston. Among many of Boston’s accomplishments, he was the well-known black captain of the all-black-crewed whaleship Industry, as well as a successful businessman, abolitionist, and one of the founders of the African Meetinghouse and School. Twice widowed, Boston married Hannah Cook in 1827 a woman with whom I would like you to be familiar. Born in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1795, Hannah Cook Boston instantly became a mother to Absalom’s three children. Hannah was an equal partner in her marriage, just as all Nantucket women were. She became the mother of five children, helped with the creation and running of the African Meetinghouse, and supported her husband in his work with desegregation of the island schools. When Absalom died in 1855, he left Hannah a sizable estate. However, over a short time, the estate dwindled to almost nothing because of the economic downturn on the island due to many things, including the Great Fire of 1846, the demise of whaling, and the Gold Rush, which lured so many away from Nantucket.

Faced with having to find a means to support herself, Hannah looked for work outside the home. Unlike many other black island women however, Hannah did not become a domestic servant. Instead, she went to sea – following in the footsteps of her own family and her husband – by becoming the stewardess on the steamship Island Home, the first female steamship stewardess in fact. She was not serving a family, but working for the Nantucket Steamboat Company – taking care of its female passengers in the Ladies Cabin. Hannah passed away in 1857 after only a short time serving on board the steamer, but her taking this position encouraged other island women to follow suit, for several others were later employed as stewardesses on Nantucket steamships.

Now here is another thing, Maria Mitchell traveled on board the Island Home in 1857. She likely knew Hannah already but even more exciting to me is that Hannah likely was the stewardess during Maria Mitchell’s trip – the beginning of Maria’s trip to the southern United States and later Europe as a young lady’s chaperone. Now, how interesting is that?!

JNLF

O, Pioneers (Well, Maybe Not Exactly So)

Mitchell House

The Blizzard of 2015. Snow, wind, more wind. No power, no mobile phones (horror!) But we do have – wood burning stove, gas range top, candles, lanterns.

It’s when the power goes out for a long period of time that you are forced to slow down and live a bit closer to the way that Maria Mitchell and her family once did. Having a ten-month old son provided us with a different perspective this time around. His first blizzard. We had to make sure we had extra water on hand for bottle making and water to heat for bottle washing. While it was cold outside, we warmed the house with a woodstove that my parents were very smart to purchase when building our family home in 1983. It heats the entire house and keeps us nice and warm – as long as we feed it all night! It provides us with another stovetop to cook on, to heat water on, and now, to heat baby bottles on. It also is a place where we can warm our toes after going outside and to dry out our hats, mittens, boots, and socks. This blizzard however we found that our Siberian Husky had even had enough of the wind and snow and cold. Typically, she will walk in all weather – we say she is better than the post office – but this time she wouldn’t leave the driveway. That’s how you know it really is a blizzard.

View from the attic window.

View from the attic window.

When I was finally able to get in to check the Mitchell House and other MMA properties, this is what I found. It made me think about some of the pieces I have posted over the years from Maria Mitchell’s journals where she writes about the heavy snow and cold and sleighing along Main Street or the temperatures never getting above zero. She recounts all the games she played or poems and rhymes she wrote or new tatting she worked on – all to pass the time. And being in the Mitchell House always gives me a renewed perspective on how cold it got in houses then – especially in a room not lit by a fire. So the next time the power goes out (as long as you are safe), take some time to relish it, accept it, slow down, enjoy the people you are with. Read a book, just sit quietly doing nothing, nap, or better yet, write a poem or a silly rhyme. Even better, write silly rhymes about one another as Maria did with her Vassar students at her annual dome parties. Be creative, rely on your brain to entertain you – not your “device.”

Curator's Cottage

Curator’s Cottage

I will make one plea here – and that is for people to at least have a landline that can call out locally and receive calls. Relying on your mobile phone is not always good as this latest storm illustrated. Landlines were the one thing not damaged by the storm – at least in most places on island. And this does not mean a cordless phone. You need to have one of those good old-fashioned cord phones with the push buttons where the handset is connected by a cord to the rest of the phone folks! It is the only way we really knew what was going on – my parents calling us from off-island to give us weather and power updates.

JNLF

Would Maria Tweet?

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865From an earlier blog-

Really, I am not sure if she would. Maria Mitchell was a fairly private person. While she did keep journals, she kept them close and after the Great Fire of 1846, when she saw all of the papers and other articles blowing about the streets of Town that were not burned up, she destroyed all of her personal letters and journals. That is why most of her papers that we have today are dated after the Great Fire – there is very, very little from before the fire.

Would she Tweet “Discovered a comet tonight!” or “Gold medal from King of Denmark here boy is it heavy!” or maybe a “That Asa Gray, he wrote ‘Sir” on my letter of invite to American Academy of Arts and Sciences and crossed it off – what a slap in the face!” – maybe that was too many characters for a Tweet? But then she could Tweet her students to remind them of late night observing or maybe blog about it. She embraced technology – albeit of the late nineteenth century – and she was constantly learning – even teaching herself Greek at the age of 70.

But if she blogged or Tweeted, I think it would be more about science and education and conversing with her students and other scientists than anything personal. Maybe a Tweet after one of her daily nature walks, “Just back from walk round campus – saw Henery {the groundhog that lived around the Observatory} and Indigo Bunting. Don’t forget observing @ midnight girls!”

JNLF

Library/Ecology Lab Update

Crack repair in MMA Science Library Wing basement.

Crack repair in MMA Science Library Wing basement.

Work keeps progressing. Mason Wayne Morris told me that once he started, it would move quickly and he was not wrong, that’s for sure. They have made the repairs to the interior cracks in the basement of the Wing now. These cracks are probably due to the movement of the building soon after it was constructed and then in a few places, simply shrinkage caused by time. In the photographs here, you can see where they have filled the cracks with concrete – along the walls and where the walls meet the ceiling.

In one image you will notice a “faux bois” (false wood) effect to the poured concrete wall. This is on many sections of the concrete walls in the basement. What caused it? Well, the forms they made in the 1930s to pour the foundation were wood and once dry, when they pulled the wood out, beautiful wood graining was left behind. Some people would pay a lot of money to have this and in it’s on our cellar walls!

"Faux bois" concrete.

“Faux bois” concrete.

Morris also inspected the book stack supports in the cellar of the Wing which we believe are load bearing. He did this to check for rust per the structural engineer but I am happy to report they are rust free.

Now, he is back outside getting ready to replace the steel lintels at the top of the windows on the main floor. These have not had the water penetration that the basement windows have had but there is rust and thus, some cracking of the stucco. Then, he will have to make repairs to a small section on the east side where there has been some map cracking – large pattern cracking which is due to water penetration and follows the shape of the terracotta tiles below. So, in this case, the cracks form rectangles.

If you have not been up to Vestal Street to take a look, please do! We are moving along nicely on the exterior and hope to complete the plans for the interior and begin moving forward with that work. And again, a thank you to the Community Preservation Committee for the grant that has allowed us to do all of this exterior preservation work.

JNLF

Hot Off the Press: The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island

Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Well, I finally did it. After many, many requests and at the urging of many, I published a small book. It took me a little longer than I hoped but I have managed to take my master’s thesis and put it into something I hope will start a better conversation concerning Nantucket women and give them more credit than, “they had to do it.” As the curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections, it’s pretty obvious what I am up to my ears in besides historic preservation, collections care, and outreach; I also eat, sleep, and breathe Nantucket history – women, Quakers, architecture, the history of the MMA, you name it, I am constantly reading, researching, and learning about it. Do I know everything? No – I learn something new every single day. But, in my travels with Nantucket women – thus far – I have come to some new conclusions and this became the basis of my master’s thesis and thus this small book I have created. I feel that I am bringing something new to the table and I hope this helps to open the discussion. I have a lot more research and writing to do – I have only barely scratched the surface here – but I felt it was time to get that conversation going.

Books are available at several places on island, including at the MMA Gift Shops, and by contacting me. A portion of the proceeds will go to a restricted fund for the Mitchell House for conservation proposes.

JNLF