Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Ap 30 {1882}. I am very well, but age tells on me. My feet are lame if I wear old shoes, my new teeth make my gums sore. It is useless to try to console myself with the recollection that when I was young new shoes harassed me and old teeth kept me awake; the pains of youth are easily forgotten and quickly remedied; those of age cling to you and must be borne. I am thankful to have nothing worse of physical ills.

Even America’s first woman astronomer faced the challenges of getting older. Her description makes me smile – it’s spelled out in typical, forward, no bones about it Maria “speak.” Frank and to the point but also somewhat philosophical if I may say that. The grass is always greener on the other side! When you are young, you want to be older. When you are older, you want to be younger. But as you age, well, playing on the floor with your three-year-old gets a little more creaky. Your child starts to think all mommies moan when they get up from sitting on the floor – and that it takes a while. I wonder what MM would think of me?

JNLF (AKA Old Mommy)

Curator Almost Eaten By Large Lobster

Well, not quite. But, part of my job is to also take care of all of the MMA properties. So, I headed over to check on one and what cleaning supplies are needed for the summer and for our staff spring clean-up of the site. In one room, some of the animals from the Aquarium over-winter. One of those is “our” lobster, Clementine, so-called because she is orange in color. (Orange lobsters are five times rarer than blue lobsters and only one in ten million lobsters are orange.) She is fairly active and though the hope is that she “sleeps” a bit for the winter, she doesn’t seem to.

So, enter curator into room who glances over and hopes the lobster does not “run” to the side of the tank asking to be fed. Yes, she really does that – she has gotten used to people. I always hate it because I feel guilty – I do not feed her because that falls to the Natural Science Department and I do not want to hurt her or her schedule in any way. In any case, “Whew!” She actually seemed quiet at the back of the tank. Maybe she was “sleeping.” I kept moving to the next room and glanced back. Low and behold, she was at the front of the tank waving her claws! Seriously? So I kept moving on – after telling her, “I can’t feed you,” – and she went to the back of the tank again! Another, “Whew!”

Eating a shrimp for lunch.

I decided to text Emily, our Director of Natural Science, and relay what happened. I get a text back. “You can feed her if you want.” “Really?” I texted back. “What do I give her?” So, Clementine then ran back to the front of the tank when she saw me opening the freezer and taking out the mussels and a shrimp. I got another text from Emily: “Use the forceps to hand them to her.” Well, I wasn’t about to put my hand in there! So, I get the shrimp, put it in the forceps, open the top of the tank and start to put my hand down, and INSTANTLY two HUGE lobster claws come out of the tank and grab not the shrimp but the forceps! I wish I had a picture. I was afraid she was going to take the forceps. And then, I was afraid my hand was going to be her lunch. I could not get her to release the forceps – it was a battle royale though the battle was more on her part because I was afraid I would break her claw! After some twisting of the forceps and tugging, she finally relented, took the shrimp, and began her lunch. Another, “Whew!” I was afraid I was either going to hurt her or I was going to be explaining to my three-year old what happened to Mommy’s hand at work. Veuve Clicquot with that, Clementine?

Apparently, someone else knew what transpired with the lobster. As I left the building, a male mallard duck was paddling around in the rather large puddle – if you can call it that – located on the property. We have recently had a large amount of rain. He was laughing (I mean quacking) at me.

In all seriousness, I have never met a lobster with so much personality. Yes, personality. Clementine may just have changed my tune on lobster rolls.



We all await spring with hope. We look forward to birds singing spring sings, to things greening up outside. To bulbs beginning to break through the earth. To tree beginning to bud. And, we look forward to flowering trees to tell us yes, Spring really is here.

Forcing bulbs and flowering trees was a rite of spring in my house growing up – something my Mom, a big gardener, continued from generations before. Paperwhite narcissus, amaryllis, forsythia, dogwood, pussy willow . . . Spring comes indoors. I had meant to force some forsythia for a month and finally went to cut some when I got a chance. When I did, the forsythia was already heavily budded. I cut the branches on March 31st and by the next day we already had yellow buds ready to open! I have a large bunch in my family room at home now and a tiny, tiny few springs in the window near my desk at work.

When I worked for a short time in New Orleans (when my husband was stationed there), I worked in a floral shop that specialized in making garden baskets from potted plants – they were gorgeous – cut flowers, and antique garden art and architectural elements. The owners grew most of the plants they sold. One thing that arrived on a regular basis from January through April was a truck from Mississippi. A family cut branches from their hundreds of acres of trees and shrubs – and had for several generations – and would bring them to floral shop in some of the bigger cities. He would roll the back door up to hundreds of bunches of branches from flowering trees. Pear. Redbud. Forsythia. Dogwood. Redbud was a favorite – gorgeous! He even brought items in the fall like cottonwood and bittersweet – beware of the invasive qualities of bittersweet! I think he was the same man who also brought us interesting moss and lichen too. Such an event – I think I spent more than I earned!


Not Simple At All

Andrew's Spoon

The image of a wooden spoon you see here is quite special. It is made of curly maple and was given to me just recently by our former Director of Natural Science, Andrew McKenna-Foster. Andrew made it – that’s what makes this spoon something I will treasure forever.

My first memory of Andrew was when he was an intern here many years ago. I remember this young man, sitting in the kitchen of Hinchman House with other interns, carving a spoon out of wood. He then planned to place a cord of rawhide through the end so it could be wrapped around his wrist. He claimed he would use it all summer to eat all of his food – no other utensils to be utilized. I am really not sure what I thought then – something along the lines of, “This young man practices what he preaches, lives simply . . . He found the right internship! And we found a great intern.” But, in any case, that is what I think about when I think back to first meeting Andrew. He had other adventures as an intern too – I think he took in a baby bird and at one point had some large spider that may even have gotten loose. But, the first one is the spoon.

I told him about that not long before he left MMA to go back to school and to seek new adventures – Andrew, after all, had been with us since his internship in some way or another – as an intern, assistant director, and then director – it was time for him to fly. But, I think this is the reason he made this for me. I am not sure he realizes just how special this is. With my background, this is a heirloom to be passed down – used but used carefully. It is not a simple spoon at all. It is a memory of a friend and colleague, who like me, grew up at the MMA in some respects. It is not simple at all. Thank you, Andrew.


And It Continues

Slope to street

Even with light snow, our landscaper, Greg Maskell, and his crew were hard at work building the new accessible ramp to the MMA’s Research Center. They have moved the accessible parking pad closer to the building so that it can be shared by Drake Cottage where our offices are located, they are creating the slope across the parking lot that is also accessible, and installing the gravel pad for the condenser units for the HVAC system in the Research Center. They have even dug the trench for the electrical lines! Whew!Path to door

And, you may notice our newly rebuilt beautiful new rear porch – done by Matt Anderson – and out new island-made door that gives us a proper accessible wooden threshold!

Inside, the countertops have arrived and the tabletops – soon to be installed by cabinetmaker Mike Freedman. Plumbing has been roughed in by Marden Plumbing. In addition, I have been still ordering other items to keep them busy! Toilet, sink, hardware, eyewash, knobs, and lights for the outside – you name it!

Lab tops

And, just in case you thought we were neglecting other buildings, we just had the back rooms of Hinchman House painted by Jim Tyler and crew. The old part of the house – the lab room and animal room and the back stairs and hall look fantastic and all ready for summer visitors! I think the frogs, snakes and turtles are quite happy that we spruced up their room. The painting was completed with a grant from the M. S. Worthington Foundation.

Many, many thanks to all!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

March 31. {1857} We are at length in New Orleans, and up three flights of stairs at the St. Charles, in a dark room, at the pretty price of three dollars a day . . . . The peculiarities of the city dawn upon me very slowly. I first noticed the showy dress of the children, white waists and fancy skirts – then the turbaned heads of the black women in the streets, and next the bouquet-selling boys with their French phrases.

This was Maria Mitchell’s southern trip in the spring of 1857, before she and Prudence Swift (her charge) headed to Europe. What you need to keep in mind is that Maria Mitchell was coming from a heavily Quaker influenced island home so to see the “showy dress” of the children and the turbaned women, as well as the dazzling bouquets of flowers, added to the cacophony of color that Maria Mitchell was not used to seeing in such an extreme. It must have been an assault to her eyes though a beautifully happy one. When you think of New Orleans, besides the obvious of the Vieux Carré and jazz music, what always comes to me is the thick humid air, the lush of the plant life, and the fantastic explosion of color, as well as the warm, beautiful faces of New Orleanians and the drawl that only says New Orleans native. (Can you tell I lived there for about three years? Riverbend.)


Women’s History Month

March is women’s history month (though all months should be women’s history month.)

Maria Mitchell was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), was its president (1875), and founded its Science Committee which she chaired for the remainder of her life.

When the fourth Congress of the AAW met in Philadelphia in October 1876, Julia Ward Howe (also a friend of Maria’s) was serving with Maria on the executive committee. Maria presented a paper, “The Need for Women in Science.” In it she stated,

Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she could do in science? . . . The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work.

She is not saying that women cannot be scientists – she is saying they need to be given the opportunities.

Maria was incredibly busy with the AAW – it took up a great deal of her time – and at the next meeting in November of that year some aspects of the meeting were wonderful according to her account –“excellent” papers, “newspapers treated us very well. The institutions opened their doors to us, the Centennial gave us a reception. But – we didn’t have a good time!” It appears there was discord among the women. A few opposed the subject of “Woman Suffrage,” but Lucy Stone was able to present her paper on the subject despite this. And, some women felt that the West was not well represented and was overshadowed by New England, thus women representing the western states protested the nomination and election of Julia Ward Howe as president of the AAW. But she won. Whew! It was not always easy and controversies constantly abounded with many schisms over time within the women’s rights movement.

I often wonder what Maria might think of the place of women today – how far things have come from her time or would she be surprised that there still is inequality? What would she think of January’s Women’s March?

In honor of Women’s History Month, please visit the National Women’s History Project website, where you can find a list of this year’s women honorees for “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” Maria and three other women associated with the MMA’s astronomy program – Annie Jump Canon, Margaret Harwood, and Dorrit Hoffleit – were once honored under a different theme. Bet you can’t guess that theme! You will also find a list of March birthdays and March highlights in U.S. women’s history.


Mitchell House Junior Historians This Summer


If you have someone in your life aged 7-11 who loves history, crafts, Maria Mitchell, and a fun way to role those all into one then the Mitchell House summer programs are for them!

I post here a short video of our “Keep the Lights Burning” class taken this past August with our fabulous Mitchell House summer intern, Nikki Lohr, leading the class. The class learns about life before electricity, does a little tinsmithing, and creates a candle for their tin “lantern.” (This particular class in 2016 turned out to be all girls! Appropriate for Women’s History Month, no? Girl power! We do get plenty of boys if you are wondering.) Classes are twice a week for two hours. It’s a great way to have your child spend their morning learning while allowing them the freedom of summer to head to the beach in the afternoon. You can sign your child up for one or for all six. Classes are in July and repeat in August. We will also be hosting our ever-popular “Family Sailors’ Valentine”

classes again, as well as the new “Mitchell House at Night”

class that we held for the first time ever last year. It was a lot of fun!

Mitchell House classes can be found at:


Put Your Jane Hancock Here! Or Marking Where We Have Been for the Future


In historic preservation, it’s good to let the future people who come along know that you have been there in some way. To leave a paper trail, document with drawings and photographs, even physically leaving a small mark – at least I believe that!

In the vein of leaving a mark and marking history and when something happened, I asked all the MMA employees last week to “sign” the new concrete ramp that the mason created between the two basements in the Research Center – you know that three-foot thick piece of concrete? Well now, it’s a perfect doorway with a great ramp for moving collections back and forth! It also allows us to maintain the two old basement staircases from the 1920s and 1930s.

So, everyone showed up at 1:30 and patiently tried to write their names in wet concrete that was made with a heavier mixture to offer a non-slip surface. Added to that, I wrote MMA and 2017.

The other influence in this “marking for the future people who come along” is the fact that I distinctly remember my Dad doing this when they poured the concrete floor of the garage addition at our house that also had a second floor apartment for my Nana. Bent over the wet concrete in his old Air Force khakis and white t-shirt – his working outside wear of my youth – he carved out all of our names – Jack, Melodee, Jascin, Jarrod, Sahsha, Gloria, Greta. Sahsha was our Siberian Husky and Great was my Nana’s (Gloria) Miniature Schnauzer. Our house is now owned by a woman who worked for my Dad for many years – I consider that still in the family – and our names are still there.

Everyone leaves a mark – we are all just the shepherds of the houses we live in and the buildings we work in. It’s our responsibility to take care of them properly and pass them along to the next owners. We are just stewards – it really is never ours.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Feb.5, 1882. We have had two heavy snow storms since Feb. came in. We have twice been unable to get out of the Observatory without help. The first time 6 men, two horses and a girl came to our rescue; today four men and two horses and the girl came.

I don’t think this needs much explanation – and I am sure many of us understand and can sympathize. But, think of it from a nineteenth century perspective and be thankful you have more modern means of digging out – though horses and men are much more environmentally friendly – though I am not sure how the horses felt about such a task!