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!


Don’t Forget Spring!

These seemed to be trying to say this to me. I came across this little knot of Forget-Me-Nots growing up out of a crack in Vestal Street during the first week of December. The crack is close to the foundation of Hinchman House and is thus a bit warmer. It had also been a warm fall – my daffodils started to make a tiny green tipped appearance in part of my yard.

But the fact that these are Forget-Me-Nots seemed poignant to me. I have family members – some now departed – for whom Forget Me-Nots were special – and perhaps, this is a way of them saying hello to me in a different way. I suppose it’s also Mother Nature’s way of giving us something to hold onto – especially with the bitter cold we have had recently.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Dec. 12 {1854}. When I consider how many useless words are spoken, how many foolish ones, how many which isolate and provoke, how many which pollute the mouth that utters and the ears that listen, I am almost ready to condemn the use of language and to wish that mankind communicate by signs, or by pictures . . .

I think most of us can commiserate with Maria Mitchell on this one – and she wrote this back in 1854! It seems that even then, she took issue with the decline of language and frankly, I am sure she would be appalled today. I think it’s also not just about the use of language but also that sometimes, some things should not be spoken. It is about decorum and thinking before you speak. Often words cause so many problems and the person might not think about it before they say it.


Research Center Update: We Have Heat!

Returning original lath to bathroom wall.

And a lot more!

Once things were worked out concerning the HVAC system and the HVAC room, things have now started to really move in the Research Center. The HVAC system has not been easy – trying to fit a system that is needed for our collections inside of an existing building and not causing harm to historic fabric has been working in pretzel fashion – and fabricating a system in a pretzel fashion – and we owe a lot to Kevin Wiggin and his team for that. Thank you!

The carpenter, Matt Anderson, and his team came in to complete the furnace and basement doors and to get the accessible bathroom back up and ready. We have reused all the historic fabric – from baseboards and trim boards – to widening the old bathroom door. And, Matt was able to save the lath from the walls in the bathroom where new updated plumbing lines had to go in due to code. He re-installed the lath and then Pen Austin and her team came in and replastered the walls with lime plaster – just as they were! Now we await the rest of the bathroom, some more cabinetry related items, and painting, as well as cleaning and coating the floors.

Lime plaster being prepared.

We are getting close – stay tuned!



Sometimes, quiet is what we all need. Sometimes, it’s nice to find a place where you can sit quietly. The only things you can hear are birds and maybe the surf or harbor water gently lapping along the sand.

The image you see here is a place such as that. Not sure many people know of its existence but happily I was told of this spot. It once belonged to a family with whom – some members of – I have been friends since I was a child. It speaks of a different time on Nantucket – a time that we are fast losing. It looks out over the water and is a quiet and unassuming shack.

When you are moving too quickly, try and find a moment to stop. To listen. To smell. To breathe. And be thankful. And be, respectful.


Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Perhaps I have ruminated on this before. First we complain that it’s too hot, then we complain it’s too cold. We complain that it’s too cold for June and too warm for October. I am sure it’s been the same thing for thousands of years, well, at least hundreds. But when it turns cold, and I firmly continue to deny myself the warmth of the Observatory wishing to remain at Mitchell House as long as possible, it always gives me a renewed look at what it was like for the Mitchells and others in the nineteenth century and earlier – heck, even later – at least before improved heating systems in the 1930s and 1940s.

I grew up with good old-fashioned radiators in a Colonial Revival built in the 1920s. I LOVED the sound of them clanging on and the steam sounds – I had great ones too in some of my dorm rooms at Mt. Holyoke that dated to the 1920s. The sound was comforting and cozy. Sometimes, not always that warm because my Dad was a lover of keeping the heat down as he didn’t like it hot (I think it kept the germs at bay, too). My memories of coming home from school in winter are my Mother sitting at the breakfast table with her cup of afternoon tea, her cowl-neck sweater her grandmother (my Other nana you may have read about here in this blog) made her when my Mother was in her late teens, pulled up over her nose, only being lowered to sip her tea. Her hands firmly wrapped around that HOT mug.

Imagine only having a fire in the kitchen and maybe the sitting room to keep you warm – the rest of the house almost stone cold – or at least only getting a limited amount of warmth from the chimney mass and heat rising through the house. Not terribly warm. Most houses did not get much above 40F and I’ve read accounts of wash rags freezing on lines inside the house after dishes were washed. Eek! But then, people were used to that so it’s hard to think of stepping into that from what we have but for the Mitchells to do the opposite – shocking but I am sure would be delightfully welcomed.

I still long for the banging and steam sounds of the radiator. The old 1700s tavern my family has lived in for many, many years now has an oil fired furnace – fan forced heat. Not the same – the banging of dampers in the system doesn’t compare. And it’s always dry in the house – steam radiators added some wet to the dry air of winter.

Yeah, complain, complain, complain. Baby, its cold outside.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov. 24, 1854. Yesterday, James Freeman Clarke the biographer of Margaret Fuller came in to the Atheneum. It was plain that he came to see me and not the Institution. I was a good deal embarrassed and made such an effort to appear as if I wasn’t, that I was almost ready to burst into a laugh at my own ridiculousness.

Maria, as was her way, always assumed that she was not important. She did not believe she was important. That people would not care about her work or who she was. Very Quaker. Very Maria. She was certainly not full of herself that is for sure. But people did seek her out while she was librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum. By the time of Clarke’s arrival, her comet discovery was old news” but her fame was not – that would continue on well beyond her lifetime as we all know. Her fame faded to some degree but well into the early twentieth century she could still be considered a household name. The fading has more to do with the place of women in history than Maria herself – women were buried.

It’s also important to note that the Nantucket Atheneum was not just a library but a place of learning for all beyond just books – as it still is today. It helped to attracted literary stars, great thinkers, and other luminaries of the nineteenth century – yes, even this far out to sea – who came to lecture and speak and take part in conventions like the anti-slavery conventions. The Quaker belief in education and life-long learning was something that influenced all parts of island life; certainly its library.


Talking to Maria Mitchell, or Speaking to the Dead

I originally posted this a few years ago and last week, the Inquirer and Mirror printed an article on the stone monuments at Prospect Hill Cemetery. Thus, I thought I would re-post this – something I don’t often do. But it continues to be very important. More recently, in May, I worked with some island Girl Scouts to clean the stones of Nantucket veterans. While the process cleans the stones, it does not bring them back to what they once were – that’s not reversible and also, in conservation you never bring it back to the perfect from when it began. That’s not the point. The other part of cleaning the stones is that it protects them for three to five years or more from new growth. Lichen and its continued growth slowly obliterates the face of the stone physically. I will be doing another workshop in June with the Prospect Hill Cemetery so stay tuned. I have been doing this for at least a decade now – not three as the paper wrote – and I have been trained by a conservator! And remember – you can never clean stones that you either don’t have permission to clean or that don’t belong to your family. You need to seek permission first from the cemetery sextant.

No, the curator has not gone completely mad. But when you are working on a stone monument at the cemetery, you feel compelled to talk to Maria and her family. You see, I am cleaning their grave markers. Back in 2005, with funding from the Community Preservation Act, I worked with a stone conservator to clean the stone monuments of the Mitchell family correctly. Unfortunately, people think that bleach is a good idea. It’s not. It eats away at the stone causing irreversible harm. (And by the way, taking rubbings of gravestones is illegal.)

As a way to share the knowledge of properly cleaning a historic stone monument, we opened the process as a workshop – which was underwritten by the Community Preservation Act – during Preservation Month. We had a wonderful turnout, including descendants of the Mitchell family and a professor of microbiology who, while upset we were removing excellent samples of lichens from the stones, regaled us with all the names of the lichens we were removing and all sorts of interesting facts about them. You see, while a microbiologist might think they are fantastic and that Nantucket’s cemeteries have some of the best lichen growths, a conservator sees lichen as the bane of the stones existence! Growths lock in moisture and help to more quickly erode the facades of the stones.

Stone before cleaning.

So, with the beautiful fall weather, I have been back at work cleaning the stones with a special environmentally and conservation friendly cleaner made just for such a job. If you are interested in learning more, or possibly participating in a workshop this spring to learn how to do this, please contact me.

And remember, it’s okay to speak to them – I think they like the visit.

The same stone after cleaning.