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!


Emily Dickinson


At a young age, I was given a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems illustrated specifically for a child.  It was given to me by friends of my parents – they had all been good friends in high school.  Their daughter and I became friends as well.  We always celebrated New Year’s together by staying at one another’s houses overnight – swapping the place each year.  That ended when the couple divorced and slowly over time, we did not see them much anymore.    I still have that book however.  It left an impression on me – particularly “I’m Nobody!  Who are you?”

Emily Dickinson is of course infamous for being a so-called recluse . . . which is not true.  Her poetry continues to be studied and her life to inspire books – fiction and non-fiction.  Currently, a new exhibition has opened at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City

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spurring on more interest in her life and her work.  Being a Mount Holyoke College graduate, I also have a further interest in her – though she only attended for about a semester.  One year while I was at MHC, my Mother and I visited her home, which is a beautiful historic house museum in Amherst, Massachusetts.

You probably wonder why I mention her here.  While their paths did not cross, I am most assured in my mind that Maria Mitchell would have read her poetry and Emily Dickinson would be most aware of Maria Mitchell and her accomplishments.  Dickinson would have been 17 when Maria discovered her comet and as one who attended a woman’s college (called seminary then), she would have been greatly aware of the creation of Vassar Female College and Maria’s work there.  Dickinson even had a copy of The Marble Fawn by Nathaniel Hawthorne – a volume that refers to a lady scientist – Maria being the inspiration.

I am happy to say that, today, we have been reunited to some extent with the people I mentioned above when first opening this post.  My Mom and her friend are in regular contact with one another and this friend has been an enormous emotional support.  The couple’s daughter and I talk sporadically as well.  She now passes her son’s clothes down to my son and funnily enough, we realized that over the year’s we have been visiting the same spot in Maine and staying in the exact same bed and breakfast but just two months apart!  Moreover, every time over the years when I look at that book of poetry, I think of them.  Funny how Emily has kept me connected.


View From My Window


Deep in work at the computer.  Ordering countertops for the MMA Research Center and working via email with the representative from the company.  I finally look up to see it’s snowing.  And then, when I turn, the bright piercing red of the male cardinal out the window of the Maria Mitchell Observatory’s Seminar Room a.k.a my winter office.  A bright, happy hello!


Research Center Early Winter Update

Beginnign hole

We have daylight!  We have broken through!

As you can see from the images here, Wayne Morris has cut through the two basements which will allow us easier access between the two for moving collections back and forth and working with them.  Remember that they are two foundations created at different times and sandwiched together.  It’s like Fort Knox – I am NOT kidding.  Mr. Morris has never seen anything like this and he is a SEASONED mason who has been working on Nantucket for his entire career.  It has taken countless hours.  He is using both a special wet saw and a jackhammer of sorts and both require an extreme amount of strength in order to get through the walls.


You can also see what the wall is made of.  There is a large aggregate in the grout (cement), particularly in the upper portion.  The lower portion of the wall is unbelievably a softer grout than higher up.  We are not sure why that was done or how it happened unless it was a symptom of mixing – or a different person who created the mix!walls

But in any case, we are getting there – it’s just been a very slow slog through almost 100-year-old grout!  Next up, the engineer is finishing up a support system based on what was revealed when the 2 ½ feet was cut through.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

January 22. {1855} Horace Greely, in an article in a recent number of the ‘Tribune,’ says that the fund left by Smithson is spent by the regents of that institution in publishing books which no publisher would undertake and which do no good to anybody.  Now in our little town of Nantucket, with our little Atheneum, those volumes are in constant demand . . .

Smithson of course refers to James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States in order to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  This sum was about a half a million dollars and came from a man who never even visited the United States.  No one knew of this gift so to this day no one knows why he chose to make such a gift.  Though the promotion of the sciences and sharing the knowledge of it with people I am sure was a part of it.

Nantucket was known as a community of life-long learners and the Atheneum the hive where much of that information could be disseminated from.  Almost thirty miles at sea, people were not completely starved for information but as many of us are familiar with, it used to (before the Internet especially) make information slow to reach us.  And reading and learning are yet another very nice way to pass the time on a quiet, solitary island so I am not surprised that Maria notes that those volumes flew off the shelves.  They opened a world that was vast and far away and brought them to our shores – just as they still can.


Missing Pieces

Sally Mitchell Barney is seated lower right. Image from collection of MMA Archives and Special Collections.

Sally Mitchell Barney is seated lower right.
Image from the collection of the MMA Archives and Special Collections.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly, in history we will always have missing pieces.   In particular, about daily life, the details of a person’s life, and about the average person who went unnoticed as she/he did her/his work and lived her/his life.

On occasion, we get a better glimpse into daily life when we come across a person’s personal journals and letters, account books, even photographs if it is late enough in time.  It still doesn’t tell you every last detail, but it does help.

People think I know everything about Maria Mitchell.  I do not not.  I know a great deal but not everything and not how she felt about everything.  We don’t have details about her life as a child besides the few things that were written as an adult or remembered by others.  We certainly have large holes of information about some of her siblings, even her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell.  And these holes are always something I try and keep filling.  I will never fill them all in but little pieces do help to paint a picture.

This fall, I and the Mitchell House, had the good fortune of meeting a couple from New Mexico who were on a New England tour.  The wife is from an old New England family – ancestors on the Mayflower (says I, the descendant of late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy) – and ancestors who lived on Nantucket, including her great grandmother, Eliza Gardner Heaton, who was born on Nantucket to Prince and Mary Gorham Gardner in 1816.  Eliza was a friend of Sally Mitchell’s (also born in 1816), the oldest sister of Maria Mitchell, and friendly with Maria as well.  Even better, Eliza attended William Mitchell’s schools.  This couple very kindly provided me with the recollections and notes of Eliza as they reference Sally and William and Maria as well.

I awaited the copies in the mail, and still having to close up Mitchell House for the winter, I was only recently able to begin reading the documents though I have been hankering since they came in the mail (I allowed myself a cursory look then).  And they have proved more than useful as they have provided me with information to fill a few holes not just about Sally, but William’s school as well – even a tidbit or two about Maria!

So, a few holes have been filled with many more gigantic ones to slowly fill in.  Maybe someday they will get filled to some extent.  But for now, I have some more pieces to use to tell the Mitchell story and also to put into our archives for future reference and for others to use to fill other holes!