Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 24, 1881.  . . . Mr. I. {van Ingen} thinks that not a person on the Board of Trustees would approve of the clause in Mr. Vassar’s will which objected to women as occupants of chairs.

Just months before, Maria Mitchell had written a letter describing the controversy surrounding the bequest of Matthew Vassar to the college he founded.  The large sum was separated out within his will, including the establishment of department chairs.  The bequest however for this action did not allow for women professors to have a chair.  Quite shocking for a women’s college but then, there were early trustees in the College’s founding who believed that women professors should not exist at Vassar!  Maria would be the first professor Vassar hired – male OR female.


Mitchell House This Fall

Well, sadly, the summer season is coming to a close for the Mitchell House and all of the MMA properties.  It is hard to believe – summer just flew past (yet again)!  There will of course be off-season open nights and special events and activities during the off-season.  Look to see when Hinchman House our Natural Science Museum will be open as well.

Mitchell House will remain open in September on a limited basis.  We will be open Mondays and Fridays from 10-4 for tours (Closed Labor Day) through September 27 and on Saturdays from 10-2 through the 21st of September.  Do please come by – especially if you have never been or not visited in a long time.  We do have some recent acquisitions!  The charge is $5 for adults, $4 for children, and it is FREE for members!

Additionally, I will be leading the Four Centuries Domestic Architecture walking tour with the Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT) and Nantucket Historical Association on Saturday, September 7.  It starts at the Oldest House at 10AM and ends at Hadwen House on Main Street.  It’s $10/person and lasts until about 12 noon – no reservations necessary.  It’s a unique collaborative that I created many years ago with the then NHA Education Director, Kim McCray, and grew to include NPT.  We have a lot of fun and it’s a great learning experience – and you get to briefly go into some of the sites as well.

Then, on Friday, September 13, I will lead my “Daring Daughters of Nantucket” walk.  It starts at 2PM and runs about an hour and a half or so.  Reservations are necessary and it is $15 for Non-Members and $10 for Members.  It takes a look at the famous – and infamous – women of our island and how their lives were shaped by several important factors.

So please come join us!



Here on Vestal Street we have two neighbors high above us.  Their homes are not in the downtown area; they are not even on Vestal Street.  One likely lives near Capaum Pond and the other high in a pine tree – but mainly when nesting.

I can be watering the Mitchell House garden, teaching a class, having a meeting, giving a tour, or even sitting at my desk and I can hear the calls high above me as they soar on the thermals, calling out to their mates, warding off predators and bothersome smaller birds, perhaps, maybe, calling to one another – that’s what I’d like to think.

One spends all year with us and one leaves when it starts to grow cold and arrives as things start to warm.  I’m pretty sure its the same ones every year for the last few years.  I am writing – and currently hearing – an Osprey (once called a Fish Hawk – and what a better name!) and a Red-tailed hawk.  The red tail is much more vocal – and sometimes a Bluejay can sound like a     Red-tail.  But I am hearing both of them – and have just spotted them close together in the blue breezy sky over Vestal Street.

I love hearing them.  I love looking up and spotting them.  They provide me with a joyful break, a moment to pause looking up in amazement as they soar and roll and pitch and just float in the August blue sky.


Mallow Is Out!

I’m sure you’ve seen it as you trek about the island – near the beaches and ponds.  This image is of the swamp or marsh mallow that we have on Vestal Street in our garden out front of the Observatory.  It can grow in drier places – though it’s not as lush as at Capaum Pond or out in Quaise.  It’s in the Hibiscus family – and is fairly tropical looking and always a delight to see.

“When in bloom, one of the most showy plants of the Island, for a mass of the magnificent, large flowers on the edge of a blue pond causes one’s heart to thrill at the wealth of deep pink     colour . . .”  from Nantucket Wild Flowers, Alice O. Albertson (Shurrocks) (cousin of Maria Mitchell), 1921.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Saturday Aug. 1. {1857} We were called early this morning with the cry of “Land.”  I sprang up, hurried on my dress and went upon the deck; but no land could be seen on account of the fog.  After breakfast I went up again and we were close upon it.  There lay old Ireland, a mass of black-looking rocks and soon we saw Cape Clear and enjoyed the refreshing sight of green fields.

August 1, 1857 marked Maria Mitchell’s thirty-ninth birthday.  What a birthday gift – her first glimpse of Europe after about ten days at sea having set out as a young girl’s chaperone for a trip abroad – and something of a college education as such a trip was believed to be.  Maria’s father side was from the Isle of Wight in part and I’m sure there was a further mix of English and Irish potentially in her – from both sides.  They had had a pleasant trip over but the sight of land – and as I noted, her first ever glimpse of Europe – must have been exhilarating.  Cape Clear is located on Cape Clear Island and after seeing nothing but ocean for ten days, rocks and then green, green grass were a welcome sight.


Join Us August 1st and Celebrate Miss Mitchell!

August 1, 2019 marks Maria Mitchell’s 201st Birthday!  Please plan to join us at the MMA on Vestal Street – and at the Aquarium on Washington Street – from 1-4PM for activities, the 50th Anniversary of Apollo-related events, Nanpuppets at 2PM, and the wonderful Susan Berman and Friends playing period and period-inspired music.  Refreshments will be at the ready with the “Mitchell House Punch” and games and live-animals displays will abound as we close Vestal Street from Milk to Bloom Streets for the event.


P.S. The date also marks the 200th Birthday of Herman Melville – and yes, he did meet Maria Mitchell here on Nantucket after writing Moby-Dick.

Like Small Clams at the Bottom of their Chairs

I posted this a few years ago but given our humidity, I felt it appropriate to re-blog.

I came across this beautiful little line-up the other day when I went to drop off more of my books at Mitchell’s Book Corner for them to sell and a certain line immediately came into my head.      “ . . . . that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.”

I am hoping that you will recognize that as the early part of the chapter on Nantucket in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  And all the more appropriate because it was at the bookstore!  Yes, they are not clams but mushrooms but that is what I immediately thought of.  Perhaps there is another book out there that refers to mushrooms all in a row but I was taken by these when I saw them.  Proudly standing up along Orange and Main Street; squished between brick wall and sidewalk.

And I have recounted before the connections between Melville and Maria Mitchell.  And add to that  ̶  Mitchell’s Book Corner was founded by Henry Mitchell “Mitch” Havermeyer, the only grandson of Maria Mitchell’s youngest brother Henry Mitchell, in 1968.


Children Making History – With Crafts and Butter

Working on a coin purse.

Mitchell House has an all-new week-long camp this summer – actually we have one in July (it was this past week) and one in August.  Children learn all about what life on Nantucket was like in Maria Mitchell’s day, learn about Maria and her family members, and then create a wide assortment of crafts and art related to the activities of each day.  After learning about eclipses, children create their own eclipse.  After talking about domestic life, they make butter and try their hand at some basic embroidery.  Coin purses, kaleidoscopes, and their own journals with marbled paper are just a few of the things that children will create as they spend their days at Mitchell House and exploring the sites of downtown Nantucket.  And, they even get to roll wooden hoops!  Too bad that I’m too old for this class!

Eclipse paintings.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

July 15. {1863}

My dear Sally . . .

            I think Mitchell is all right in his algebra.  He can’t stand an examination in Trig but I don’t believe he will have a rigorous one.  Father has seen the Prof. and will give him a letter to them.

If you can’t be honest with your sibling, who can you be honest with?  Apparently, Sally Mitchell Barney’s son, William Mitchell Barney – known as Mitchell as his cousin William Mitchell Barney was known as Willie (how is that for honoring your father?!) – was visiting his aunt Maria and his grandfather, William Mitchell, at their home in Lynn, MA.  Sally still lived on Nantucket and I suspect Mitchell was not only visiting but getting some much needed help with his mathematics by his aunt Maria.  As always, she is brutally honest – he won’t pass a test in trigonometry (but, neither would I!).


Judith Macy, Island Entrepreneur

A few months back, I posted a blog about Nantucket’s infamous daughter, Kezia Coffin.  While she may have been someone of our past that many islanders are not fond of, her sister, Judith Macy (1729 – 1819), was a bit better and a Quaker in good stead.  Like her sister, Judith was an eighteenth century entrepreneur but one who did not have a monopoly on her fellow islanders and who played fair – as far as I can see.  Unlike many of her sister islanders however, Judith’s husband was at home.

Widowed after just two years of marriage, Judith married second husband, Caleb Macy, a man who had faced many financial failures in his short life.  Like most island men, Caleb had gone to sea but did not fare well – it was a claim of the fact that his health did not cooperate with the life found at sea.  According to their son Obed, Caleb found not just a life partner and someone to tend to their household and children in his marriage to Judith, but he also found someone to help him in his business dealings.  With ten children and her husband’s shoe making business to assist in, Judith found herself taking care of several men who boarded with the family.  Sometimes as many as twelve men joined her family of twelve at the dinner table.  These men were likely Caleb’s workers.  In her daybook, which is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association, Judith kept a fairly detailed, if sometimes scattered, account of items purchased and sold, work completed, and records concerning her boarders between 1784 and 1805.  Judith employed at least one of her daughters and several other women to spin wool, which she sold for profit.  In some cases, it appears that Judith hired out a daughter to do work, and she sold goods to her sons, several of whom were prosperous island merchants, including Obed.

The details of the lives of Judith and her sister, Kezia Coffin, and Mary Coffin Starbuck serve as some of the few examples of what life was like for women and the role they played in society and the island economy on Nantucket in the eighteenth century.   In reference to her boarders, Judith kept details of when they “came here to bord (sic)” and the number of meals they ate during the week.  For example, on the fifteenth day of the sixth month 1800, Judith recorded that boarder Daniel Gifford “Eat 2 meals this week” and on the sixth day of the seventh month 1800, he “Eate (sic) 7 meals this week.”  Judith “sold corn out of the crib,” nails, molasses, “scanes of yarn” – likely created in her home by herself, her daughters, and other women she                       hired – and candles.  She even made a record of candles that she sold to her son Silvanus.  Judith seems to have played the role of supplier and seller for Silvanus, selling wool for him and making him sign off on his acceptance of the payment by having him make a notation in her daybook.

Judith’s daybook served, not just as a record of what was happening, but as an account book for what she and people in her employ produced, what she sold, and her other income producing activities.  She kept track of how many hours people worked for her and on her behalf for others in her daybook.  It also appears that she may have made loans to people so that they could pay the rent on their homes (Perhaps owned by her sister?).  Judith Macy even kept a detailed tally of personal items she loaned to others – surprisingly, even noting the items she loaned to her own children.  Judith’s husband obviously did not disapprove of her work since she continued working for so many years – almost right until her death, it appears.  Meager evidence indicates that Caleb’s shoemaking business was successful and he owned a large amount of real estate on the island, so he did not need his wife to work.

Unlike her sister, Judith was a Quaker in good stead – serving on various committees, even serving as the clerk of the Women’s Meeting.  Thus, her Quaker beliefs and those of her husband may have furthered her ability to conduct so much business as a woman.  Judith may have been influenced in part by her sister’s entrepreneurial skills, but she was also living in a community that did not believe in idleness and needed everyone to work so that the island, its people, and its economy could survive.  In some respects, the island took this frontier style of life even further, allowing women to take on important roles within the community.

The image you see here is her home near Sunset Hill.


From: The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women  by Jascin Leonardo Finger