Maria Mitchell for Students

Life in the Mitchell Home

“Our want of opportunity was our opportunity – our privations were our privileges, our needs were our stimulants
– we are what we are partly because we had little and wanted much, and it is hard to tell which was the
more powerful factor.”
  Maria Mitchell

William Mitchell

Portrait of William Mitchell, ca. 1840, attributed to Sanford Mason (Collection of the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association)

Growing up in a Quaker household meant a simple life. Although the Mitchells certainly stressed these values, William Mitchell was known for making attempts to liven up daily life. Quakers were not allowed to dress in or display bright colors, but Mr. Mitchell found opportunities to get around the rules. According to Phebe, one of

Maria’s sisters, “If he were buying books, and there was a variety of binding, he always chose the copies with red covers. Even the wooden framework of the reflecting telescope which he used was painted a brilliant red.” The sitting room was decorated with floral wallpaper featuring pink roses. From the ceiling, William Mitchell hung “a glass ball, filled with water, [which he used] in his experiments on the polarization of light, flashing its dancing rainbows about the room.”

Maria was fascinated by her father’s investigations. Nantucketers, it seemed, were connected to the study of the skies by nature. The work of astronomers was essential to the safe navigation of the many whaling and merchant ships that sailed from the island during the 1800s. Nantucket was then the whaling capital of the world, and William Mitchell was responsible for ensuring that whaling crews always knew their exact locations in the vast seas. He rated chronometers, ships’ clocks that had been invented less than a hundred years before and that allowed sailors to figure out their longitude.

From the time she was twelve years old, Maria served as an important helper for her father. As the family observed a solar eclipse over the island in 1831, Maria counted the seconds of the eclipse and pinpointed the longitude of their house. Two years later, whaling captains entrusted the fourteen-year-old Maria to rate their chronometers on her own. William Mitchell built a small study on the landing of an old staircase for his children, but it was most often used by Maria for all of the calculations and work associated with working with her father and on her own.

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