Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

May 27. {1857} There is this great difference between Niagara and other wonders of the world, that is you get no idea from descriptions or even from paintings. Of the Mammoth Cave you have a conception from what you are told, of the Natural Bridge you get really a truthful impression from a picture. But Cave and Bridge are in still life, Niagara is all activity and change. No picture gives you the varying form of the water of the change of color; no description conveys to your mind the ceaseless roar. So too the ocean must be unrepresentable to those who have not looked upon it.

Maria Mitchell would tour the Mammoth Cave and the Natural Bridge during her trip to the southern United States as Prudence Swift’s chaperone – I have written of these travels and Prudence before. Niagara Falls is a place she likely saw on her way to visit her younger sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who once lived with her husband in Pennsylvania. I was a bit surprised that she feels the way she does about the Cave and Bridge being well-represented by images but I do kind of see her point. However, Niagara, the ocean, any moving body of water – she is right. You don’t fully comprehend it until you hear it, touch and taste it, see its colors, and feel it splash, sprinkle, or mist across your face. Niagara certainly mists across your face – sort of like a breezy day at the beach and the salt mist that slowly builds across your face and coats the beach grass so that it shimmers in the sunlight.

JNLF

Got Spores? Portrait of the Curator as Darth Vader Redux

Mold cleaning

Maybe a year or so ago I posted a similar image of myself while cleaning the Special Collection books. Bet you didn’t know I tend to wear a mask and goggles more often and in the Mitchell House to boot. This is my “Mitchell House rite of spring.” Cleaning mildew off the ceiling in the front sitting room and on occasion – such as this year – the sitting room.

I am bundled up because even though it was April 28th, it was about 45F in the Mitchell House. I wear a mask and goggles for two reasons. 1. I should not be breathing in the rubbing alcohol, and, 2. I should not be breathing in any spores. (Is my life GLAMOROUS or what?!) I use three parts water to one part rubbing alcohol. This not only kills the spores on the top but below the surface as well. Bleach just gets the spores on the top and then opens the lower ones, allowing the spores to continue to grow.

So, my first thing in Mitchell House is always this task as for the winter all the furniture is covered with sheets and plastic and gathered in the middle of the room allowing easy movement and protecting the historic artifacts.

JNLF

Busy As Beavers!

East side of building with new lintel on lower level.

East side of building with new lintel on lower level.

Things are speeding along at the MMA Library – soon to be the EcologyLab!

Mason Wayne Morris and his crew (daughter Andrea) are working on replacing the steel lintels over the windows on the main floor and handling the cracking and damage to the southeast corner of the exterior. The carpenter has brought the new wood gutters to the site and applied the first coat of primer. I have ordered mineral paint samples, painted them onto the building, made the color selection, and handed in the Historic District Commission application for a paint color change – though really we are returning the stucco to its original color when it was built in the 1930s. And, the remediation crew is here to get rid of any mildew or any other contaminants in the building. The environmental engineers have made a site visit and completed their recommendations. Next, we will be designing a new HVAC system for the interior – since we will have collections in the building – and once the mason has completed his work, Jim Tyler and his painting crew will paint the stucco and the trim and windows of the Wing. The exterior work is moving along and now the interior is getting under way. We have some preliminary schematics for the interior as well with more to come – and to share – in the next few weeks so stay tuned!

Mineral paint choices based on original stucco.

Mineral paint choices based on original stucco.

JNLF

The original terracotta tiles and damage that is being repaired.

The original terracotta tiles and damage that is being repaired.

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

April 2. {1857} New Orleans. This morning we went to the French market. The French character of the city was shown in the narrow streets through which we passed intended only for foot passengers, very narrow. The sidewalks meeting in the middle of the street except for the separation of the gutter . . . . The French market was not clean enough to suit us . . . We passed through Jackson Square and saw the monument and looked at the flowers, then went on to the Spanish Cathedral . . . .

Maria Mitchell’s description of the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) still seems true to what it is today. Having lived in NOLA for about three years – my husband was stationed there with the US Coast Guard – we lived Uptown in the Riverbend area– where the mighty Mississippi River makes a bend around the area know as Carrollton. That arch that the river makes and where the city of NOLA was carved out also gives the city its name of the Crescent City. The Vieux Carré was laid out very much like an old European city with the streets in a grid pattern – all right angles to one another but the rest of the city as it developed lost such a pattern which makes for confusion for some. Having worked for a flower and antique garden ornament shop I have the privilege of entering many private homes and driving streets in a delivery van. The one requisite for anyone going into the Vieux Carré for a delivery was they much return with beignets and café au lait from Café du Monde – even the NOLA natives requested that. But NOLA still resembles the place that Maria once visited as a young woman’s chaperone – just as her home of Nantucket still looks like it once did. There are of course all manner of new buildings, signage, risqué clubs and more that did not exist in her time. But the sidewalk street with gutter – those still exist – such as Pirate Alley. Jackson Square and the monument – still filled with flowers. The French market – still there too. And she comments on dirtiness – yes, that exists too. In fact, early in the morning they still come through to hose out the streets. And trash pick-up? Don’t be surprised if you see a garbage truck at 9PM – and don’t be surprised if you cannot find a garbage can! Somehow though, they keep it relatively clean.

JNLF

My Book Signing At Mitchell’s Book Corner

JNLFBookSign at MBC

Well, after not showing my face on Main Street for the Daffodil parade since I was probably a child, I will be there – well, indoors at least.

I am pleased to announce that Mitchell’s Book Corner has asked me to do a book signing on Saturday, April 25th from 10-11AM for my book Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island: How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women. Being an alum of Mitchell’s (or a “book nymph” as a few of us referred to ourselves under the “Book Goddess” Mimi Beman), makes it extra special for me having assisted numerous island and world famous authors with their book signings. Working at Mitchell’s was my first fulltime, year-round job when I graduated from college. And it was a great learning experience. Mimi hired me based on my “connection” to the Mitchell family –having worked, by that time, at the Maria Mitchell Association for about a decade (I started volunteering at the Mitchell House about 1986 or so). It did add to the confusion – I once answered the phone at MBC by saying, “Mitchell House.” Thankfully, it was Mimi on the line – can you believe? A little dismayed but then she started to laugh heartily.

So stop by and say hello and support your local independent bookstore!

JNLF

Time Capsule

Lib sheathing

We continue to move forward with the work on the exterior of the MMA Science Library – soon to become the EcologyLab/Classroom and a state-of-the-art natural science collections storage facility – and planning for the interior. The roofer was back to complete some minor work on the original roof tiles from the 1930s and the carpenter is now getting ready to work on the gutters and downspouts. The engineer was here to assess the drainage around the building – we seem to collect a lot of water as we are at the bottom of the slight incline on Vestal Street. The plan is to find better ways to get water away from the building.

The carpenter also worked on re-shingling a small area on the south side of the building where water had been leaking from a gutter – now repaired – and that was also heavily shaded by some hedge that has now been removed to allow that area to breathe. Happily, the only rotted part was the shingles which were doing their job. Once the shingles were stripped away, the original circa 1830 sheathing boards were revealed as you see here. A time capsule in a way because these boards are part of the original William Mitchell schoolhouse. In 1919, the MMA was given the building by a Mitchell family member. The building was picked up, rotated, and put on a new foundation to serve as the MMA Science Library. Some minor alterations were made as the building had sat vacant for a few years but it was moved intact to where you see it today.

Lib sheathing 2

I like to think that William Mitchell may have run his hands over these sheathing boards as he thought about the new school he was going to open. In Nantucket fashion however, when he taught in this building it was on Howard Street. Once he no longer owned it, it sort of followed him – coming to live on Vestal Street around the late 1830s or so. Later it became the West Introductory School – a public school.

The other interesting point to make is the holes in the sheathing boards. You don’t see many holes do you? That means that the shingles currently on it are likely only the second ones put on! And the only ones to be put on with tar paper! Now that is really exciting.

JNLF

The Power of Memory

Little things are at play in my mind. I do not have a photographic memory but I have perhaps something similar with voice and smell and experience that holds onto the littlest things. I remember conversations with exact detail, sounds, smells, and what someone was wearing during some event or other. Unfortunately, such a memory can be a little frustrating and overwhelming, especially when someone says, “I never said that,” because I remember with clear detail what a person said or did. My niece also has such a memory. She brings things up from when she was very little or reminds someone that they actually said this, not that. To top it off, she is only eight years old! Such a memory can also be a painful because people who are no longer with us and activities you participated in with them are so fresh in your mind.

I was probably only 3 or so but I remember visiting my great-grandmother (Mama Minnie) with my father. I remember her opening the garage door – they had an automatic opener very avant-garde in the 1970s – and seeing her standing on the stoop inside. I remember the long bench in her kitchen and the gentle swooshing noise as she moved with her walker slightly dragging one of her braced legs – she had Paget’s Disease. I remember her dark living room with sofas encrusted in plastic – protection from wear and tear! I remember my other great grandmother – Other Nana – and sitting at her feet playing with the laces on her shoes as my parents and Nana worked in the basement. I was not allowed down there so I sat with Other Nana, eating gum drops out of the cow candy dish and watching “The Osmond Show.” I was less than three years old, maybe two at the most – my brother had not yet been born.

Sometimes a smell will overpower me, as if a person from my past is right there. My Nana’s perfume for instance. Or a place. At 12, I remember sitting under the Mitchell House grape arbor listening to Elizabeth Yager speak of the Mitchell family. She knew so much detail that I always thought of her being related to them. She wasn’t – but she did know cousins of Maria’s. She was probably in her 80s as she sat there on the bench talking to me. I sat on the flagstone. I remember her visor and her neat housedress in light blue and her Ked sneakers with tennis socks.

The more I remember these people the more they continue to live. I am a firm believer in that. That is why at the Mitchell House, when someone is on a tour with us, it’s more like storytelling in a way. Recounting events in the lives of the Mitchells, their own stories or words about their daily life. Bringing it to life so that we not only learn about the past, but also the people who shaped our present. Retelling the stories of Maria’s cousins and nieces and nephews – stories I learned from those who knew them (like Elizabeth) – it’s not a direct connection but it’s closer than you find in most museums. It’s unique and makes their stories my own and their stories yours as well.

JNLF

Hot Off the Press: The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island

BookCoverImage

I posted this a few months ago. I post it again as a way to say thank you to Mitchell’s Book Corner (MBC) for featuring my book in its advertisement in the March 26 edition of the Inquirer and Mirror. As a MBC alum, I think I burst a button – between the ad and having my book on the front table at MBC – thank you!

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 then, “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 purposes.

JNLF

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