Vestal Street Update

IMG_3271 3 Vestal Sash

Been a busy summer on so many fronts and boy, am I tired! Lots still to do though. Museums may close up but that doesn’t mean we stop working on any of our many fronts!

Hinchman House is now nice and sparkly with a brand new paint job thanks to Jim Tyler and his wonderful crew! After they finished Hinchman, they returned a few weeks later and painted the trim, sash, basement foundation, and the chimney at the Astronomer’s Cottage! I made a visit to the Historic District Commission for permission on a new front door at the Astronomer’s Cottage as well. The current one is circa 1965 or so and our neighbors very nicely donated a much older door they had in their basement. Thus, fairly soon, we will have a new door on the Astronomer’s Cottage at Number 3 Vestal that is not rotting away! The Astronomer’s Cottage is ca. 1830 and from some of the images I took of the window trim and sash, you can certainly see that.

Next up, shingling and re-roofing the Astronomer’s Cottage and repairing and replacing gutters and downspouts at Hinchman House. Much of this work on the two properties is being funded in part by a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund (MCF) grant. It is a 1:1 match and we are still wrapping up that match amount should you wish to make a contribution. MCF provided $117,000.00 and MMA has to match the remainder.

More still to come – including work on the Research Center and a site visit by the structural engineer whom I have worked with for many years. He will be here to begin an assessment on the 1908 Vestal Street Observatory and 1922 Astronomical Study (the brick parapet addition) which will be another conservation project in the MMA’s future.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Steamer Castalia. Sept. 12 {1873}. We are on the 13th day of our passage and only today am I able to write. The passage has not been bad but the pitchy motion which the head winds gave is very sickening and I was scarcely able to move for 7 days. Certainly for 3 days I was violently sick if I moved. And the worst sickness was the giddiness of the 8th and 9th days when if I moved, I was faint, or, my sight failed and things dimmed for a few minutes.
I did not walk across the deck for 10 days, although I crawled up nearly every day . . .

And this was how, Maria Mitchell’s second trip to Europe in 1873 ended. Seasick. She had spent three months in England and Russia, gaining access to the Observatory at Pulkova. She had travelled with her nephew, William Mitchell Kendall, and at times her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall and her husband, Joshua. You may have read the hysterically funny piece about Maria becoming locked in the train bathroom that I recently posted – this was part of that same trip. No matter where you are raised, even on an island, it doesn’t mean you won’t get seasick! And while this passage doesn’t detail astronomy or Vassar or women’s rights or women and education, I think it shows that Maria – or MM as she referred to herself and signed letters to family and close friends – was just as human as everyone else – even if she was America’s first woman astronomer!


The Sound of Silence

no electricity

A few weeks ago, we were cast back in time – happily! All of sudden, we noticed the power was out. Silence fell across Vestal Street and Town. No whirring noises, no air conditioners cranking, no radio noise . . . nothing but silence. It was positively wonderful!

What did I do for those brief but glorious moments? I retreated to the 1825 Kitchen where I began to sew new tie-backs for the ones that need to be replaced in the Front Bedroom of the Mitchell House – something I have been meaning to do for a long time now. I sat, with the cool breeze coming in the door, and the sun pouring in on my work. It was delightful. I listened to the birds and the breeze and heard not much else until I noticed a noise and realized, sadly, that the electricity was back on. The tie-backs now await a better moment – perhaps at home in front of the television – though maybe on our deck in the evening is the best choice for such a quiet and calming activity.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

. . . I am having a very good summer; doing nothing . . . . Whittier is lovely! He is seventy-six years old, and his friends say he fails neither outwardly nor inwardly. When I came away, he came out to the wagon and said “When thee sees the 400 Vassar girls, give them all the love of an old bachelor.” What a pity the 400 girls cannot see him!
I try not to look far ahead. The changes at Vassar are very trying . . .

The above is from a letter that Maria Mitchell wrote to Mrs. Raymond – the wife of the former president of Vassar College. President Raymond died fairly suddenly in 1878 much to the shock and sadness of many. While he was officially the second president of Vassar College, the first president had not made it to opening day. Maria Mitchell kept up her relationship with the family and it is evident from this letter that the Raymonds were familiar with the Mitchell family as Maria refers to the first names of her nieces throughout the letter. Her familiarity with John Greenleaf Whittier I have noted before in this blog; many of the Mitchells were friendly with Whittier.


Looking at Nasturtiums in A Different Way

EFA, ca.1950

The Mitchell House nasturtiums I sowed directly in the ground as I always do in late May are now blooming. They are mainly heirloom varieties – so something akin to what Mary Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s aunt who lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria’s family did, would have planted around “Neighbor North” – their name for the outhouse.

I love nasturtiums. They were also the favorite flower of a friend and mentor of mine – Edith Folger Andrews. I have written about Edith before. She was for many, many years curator of the Mitchell House – working at Mitchell House even before that. She was also an ornithologist who was instrumental in creating the MMA’s bird collection and driving the ornithology arm of the Natural Science Museum. When she first started at the MMA, the natural Science Department was still located in the Mitchell House and some of the curators and directors she worked for here at MMA were cousins of Maria Mitchell’s. One of the curators, in fact, painted this image of Edith in the sitting room of the Mitchell House in William Mitchell’s arm chair in the late 1940s. It is my favorite image of Edith – and the chartreuse of the hydrangea outside and Edith’s dress, along with the blue of the chair, are so vivid.

I look at nasturtiums a little bit differently now that Edith is gone. They have a tinge of sadness to them for me now. And I know that now, after many months, it’s time for me to make a trip to the cemetery to bring her a posey of nasturtiums.


Important New Donation Made to the Mitchell House


In June, I was contacted by a Mitchell family member inquiring if we might be interested in a family piece. This piece has descended through the Peleg Mitchell Jr. side of the family. Peleg, the youngest of William Mitchell’s brothers, purchased the house at 1 Vestal Street and lived in it until his death in the late 1880s.

In early July, the family member arrived at 1 Vestal Street having brought not one but two items all the way from California. From her bag she produced a camlet (baby blanket) and a small white cotton infant’s cap – both of which had descended in the Mitchell family via the oldest daughter since 1733!

The camlet is dark brown with a beautiful peacock blue silk border. Originally, camlets were woven of camel hair – thus the name – and later goat hair with silk and then basically any kind of wool or wool and cotton blends. This camlet is likely a cotton wool blend. Made even more special is the fact that a piece of twill tape is stitched to the underside of the blanket and on it are the initials and birth years of all of the baby girls who were wrapped in the blanket – it was then their task to pass the blanket on to their daughter. Once or twice it skipped a generation if no girls were born. This is a very unique record and makes the blanket even more special as we have its provenance right there on the blanket. Several small cards also came with the blanket speaking to its history. It is in wonderful condition having been cared for tremendously by its keepers. The infant’s cap is a treasure as well with a beautiful but simple cut piece sewn on to the main portion that gives a bit of a delicate sweep to the cap.

The babies wrapped in camlet from 1733 into 1980s.

We are truly grateful that the family felt that the Mitchell House was the place for these two items. They will of course be treasured and shared with visitors. It is a fitting return to the “homestead’ so to speak and we are truly grateful for the opportunity to protect, preserve, and share these two pieces.


The Cabinet of Curiosities


From this year’s Mitchell House Intern, Nikki Lohr, Vassar College Class of 2017.

In the Mitchell House sitting room stands William Mitchell’s writing desk, seven feet tall. When Maria was a child, she probably would have opened its cabinet doors to find shelves stacked with books and astronomy papers. Today, Mitchell House visitors will find the desk transformed into a cabinet of curiosities. In it, we installed a temporary exhibition about Maria’s travels. You’ll see photos of objects usually only found in the MMA archives, including pictures of Maria on her travels and a letter written from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Maria while she and the Hawthorne family traveled together in Rome.

Though Maria is remembered as a trailblazer of the heavens, she was just as pioneering on Earth. She traveled all over America and Europe in an age when a train ride from Chicago to St. Louis could take twenty-three hours and stage coaches plowed forth at a whopping six miles per hour.

Maria sailed to Europe twice, in 1857 and 1873. There, she visited over twenty-five cities in eight countries. She even ventured as far as Russia. In 1857, she took a four-month long grand tour of America. She journeyed out to the barren prairie lands of the Midwest and then south. After seeing New Orleans, she commented, “I think the Union cannot last.”

Perhaps most extraordinary, Maria sometimes traveled unaccompanied or only with women. At first, this made her wary. In May 1857, she visited Mammoth Cave, a massive natural monument in Kentucky. She wrote in her diary, “I was a little doubtful about the propriety of going into Mammoth Cave without a gentleman as protector, but if two ladies travel alone they must have the courage of men.”

By the time she reached Rome in 1858, she was happy to go it alone. She visited the Coliseum, the Vatican, and the Roman Forum – sites that must have resonated with her since she taught herself Latin at the Nantucket Atheneum. On January 24, 1858, she wrote to her sister Phebe: “I could scarcely believe that I really stood among the ruins, and was not dreaming! I really think I had more enjoyment for going alone and finding out for myself.”

So come by Mitchell House today, and learn more about Maria’s travels!

(And see the superb small exhibit created by Nikki with help from our student volunteer, Avery Hylton! JNLF)

Today Is Maria Mitchell’s 198th Birthday! Where Will You Be Today?

You should be on Vestal Street from 1-4PM.

An annual event pretty much since our doors officially opened in 1903, Maria Mitchell’s birthday has always been marked in some way and the annual open house – with the closure of lower Vestal Street and science and astronomy related activities – has been a “norm” around here for at least half a century.

All of the MMA properties are free and open to the public on Vestal Street – including the Aquarium at 28 Washington Street – from 1-4PM on August 1. In a nod to our birthday celebrations of old, we will have live period inspired music which will include sea chanties, a birds of prey demonstration starting at about 2:15, science and astronomy related activities for adults and children, live animal displays, and good old fashioned refreshment – our punch recipe that has not been made in about 20 years (if you were looking for limeade at the grocery store, I cleaned that out for the punch!)!

So come stop by, say hello, visit us for your first time or your 100th. This is our way of celebrating Maria and YOU our supporters and friends!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

1883, July. I heard Mr. Adams at the Universalist Church . . . I was most surprised at his fear of Tyndall, Huxley and Spencer. Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the searching after it?

I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence and while their live sensualists and despots and men who are wholly self-seeking, I cannot bare to have these sincere workers help up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the Earth.

Wow! Not much to comment here but somehow Maria already knew about the world in 2016, including the U.S. presidential contest! Goes without saying, some things never change.


The Finer Points of Cleaning New Donations

Cleaning new donations

On July 12th, I introduced the Mitchell House intern to the finer points of cleaning artifacts – in-depth curatorial cleaning. Nikki Lohr (a Vassar College senior this year, this summer’s intern, comes to us via the MMA-Vassar College Fellowship funded by a Vassar alum. The artifacts were recently donated to us from Ginger Andrews out of her family’s home on York Street which has been in the family since it was built about 1830. We were given several child-related items which had been living in the attic for a very long time and due to being so close to the roof were quite dusty and dirty from things sifting down through roof shingles and sheathing boards from wind and even re-roofing projects. She is wearing the delightful particle mask to protect her from any mold and dust. Since we do not have an indoor conservation workplace, we have to rely on a nice day outdoors to get the job done and the 12th was a perfect day – a gentle day and no humidity! We also worked on photographing the items and labeling them as we get them ready to put into our collections database.

In this image, Nikki is working on a child’s potty-chair. It is unfortunately missing its pot, but it is a wonderful mid-nineteenth century chair with hand-painted details. This chair along with a child’s rocking chair, a child’s doll cart, and an image of the astronomer Loomis will now all be on display at the Mitchell House so come see what’s new!