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!


More from Vestal Street –Astronomer’s Cottage Update

Well, sidewall and roof shingling is completed!  If you walk or drive by, you will note that the façade of the cottage at 3 Vestal Street is now re-shingled.  We think this is only the third or fourth time this portion of the cottage has been shingled.  But, there are portions of the cottage that have never been re-shingled – you can tell this by the nail holes – and also the removal of shingles has revealed some things to us which are quite exciting.

Asto Cottage facade

As you can see by two images, the house has been altered since it was built in the early 1830s.  The roof-line was changed – likely to accommodate better living space on the second floor, the chimney removed, and a pent roof and more Victorian front door was added (such a thing was not of the 1830s) but then later removed.  When I was a child, a porch existed on the east side – removed when the Observatory Seminar Room (the shingled addition that “bumps” into the east side of the cottage) was added in 1987.

What’s even more interesting is the back of the cottage.  This questionable area was better able to reveal itself when the shingles and tar paper were removed on the sidewalls.  As you can see in the image, the sheathing is separated – it has an almost perfect cut down it.  Where that cut exists, there is a corner post!  That means this last sheathing portion is a later add-on or “wart’ as we commonly call them on island.  This is also apparent inside the back kitchen ell where the floor drastically slopes towards the bathroom and pantry.  So, while the kitchen ell may have been added after 1830, the even further back portion of the kitchen ell was added at a later date – likely to provide the cottage with a bathroom once running water was introduced.  This is also why kitchen ells are so important – this was always where water was first introduced to a house – the kitchen where it was needed for cooking and cleaning and because of this fact, the kitchen ell was always where the one and only bathroom was introduced – unless the house had a full basement and the toilet often went there right under the kitchen.  Many years ago, before the MMA put on the back addition to Hinchman House there was an old summer kitchen.  And in the basement, the toilet.  It used to be enclosed by a very rickety shed-like structure to make it a bathroom.  I remember being terrified of it!

Where ell meets plumbed addition, Astro Cott.

Kitchen ell "seam", Astro Cott


And that’s how we learned a little bit more about the Astronomer’s Cottage during this exterior work which has been funded in part by a Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund matching grant.  A special thank you to Eric Nordby and his Yankee Construction crew for doing the work!

From MH


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Dec. 8,1853.  Last night we had the first meeting of the class of elocution.  It was very pleasant, but my deficiency of ear was never more apparent to myself . . .I practised {sic.} after I came home, with the family as audience.  H. says my ear is competent only to vulgar hearing, and I cannot appreciate nice distinctions . . . . Coloring I might have been good in, for I do think my eyes are better than those of any one I know.

Maria Mitchell did seem to have a problem with her ears.  When in Europe, she attended the opera as everyone who travelled throughout Europe would do – it was not just part of the visit but also of the education that resulted from a European trip.  The issue was that she was tone deaf and try as she might, she could never appreciate or enjoy the opera.  It did not stop her from trying though!  And I can see where the process of elocution might be difficult as well and the comments that “H.” (her youngest brother, Henry) makes to her are somewhat understandable – she doesn’t hear the difference.

Her feelings about color – and having better eyes – VERY true!  Not just because she was an astronomer or natural scientist – she was a natural observer and incredibly observant.  You’d be surprise at what people do NOT notice – but not Maria!  Which of course made her an even better scientist!


Happy Birthday Annie Jump Cannon


Yesterday was the birthday of Annie Jump Cannon.  In honor of her birthday, I am re-posting a blog I wrote last year.

A few weeks ago, Annie Jump Cannon was the featured Google “doodle.”  Google featured Maria Mitchell as the doodle a few years ago to celebrate her birthday and has been doing a good job of featuring well-known and lesser-known woman who have made a difference in our world.

Annie Jump Cannon was among the founding members of the MMA but she was also instrumental in the development of our astronomy program.  With a growing desire to further develop a fledgling astronomy program in 1906, the MMA began a dialogue with Harvard University’s Observatory and its director, Edward Pickering, Ph.D.  The connection to Harvard was to become essential to the success of the beginning years of the Maria Mitchell Observatory and continued a legacy of friendship and work – Maria Mitchell and her father worked with the Bonds who once ran the observatory at Harvard and the families were close friends.

Besides his advice and assistance, Pickering asked a member of his staff, Annie Jump Cannon to advise and assist the MMA.  This “provided an indispensable collaboration for Nantucket astronomy” with Cannon spending two weeks on the island in both 1906 and 1907 lecturing and teaching.  While back at Harvard, she continued to teach the students on Nantucket by mail.  Cannon would go on to be recognized as the leading woman astronomer of her generation and also as the founder of the astronomy department at the MMA.

Completed in 1908, the Maria Mitchell Observatory now was in need of a permanent astronomer.  An Observatory Committee was developed and chaired by Annie Jump Cannon.  From 1909 through 1911, the Association was able to employ an astronomer to teach classes, observe, provide lectures, and open the observatory for public observing for approximately a month each summer.  As the demand grew, the MMA realized that a more extensive program was needed and the Astronomical Fellowship Committee began to raise funds for an Astronomical Fellowship Fund.  With the support of many generous donors and a matching gift from Andrew Carnegie, by 1911 the MMA had the funds it needed to support  the fellowship and began its search for an astronomer who would conduct research and provide lectures, classes and open nights for the public from mid-June through mid-December.  The fellow would spend the remainder four months in research and study – every fourth year a full year of study would be spent in an American or European observatory.

With Pickering, Cannon developed the Harvard Classification Scheme, an attempt to organize and classify stars by temperature.  She was one of many women whom Pickering hired to reduce data and carry out astronomical calculations.  She would go on to become the Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard.  She received a regular Harvard appointment but just two years before she retired – she was named the William C. Bond Astronomer.  Today, there is the Annie Cannon Prize which is awarded to women astronomers who have made outstanding contributions in astronomy.