“Newton rolled up the cover of a book; he put a small glass at one end, and a large brain at the other
– it was enough.” Maria Mitchell
Although Maria showed a special ability for calculations and astronomy, all Quaker parents made sure to provide a thorough and
Because many Nantucket husbands, brothers, and sons were away from their homes for years at a time, women on Nantucket often owned shops, taught, or found other jobs to support themselves. Maria grew up in a special environment where, unlike on the mainland, women were considered equal to men and an important part of the community.
William Mitchell himself was a school teacher. Maria’s sister, Phebe Mitchell, wrote that education continued even after the children had returned home from a day at school: “the children of a family sat around the table in the evenings and studied their lessons for the next day, the parents or the older children assisting the younger if the lessons were too difficult.” Children in Maria’s day also attended school five days a week, for six hours a day, but were only given four weeks vacation in the summer. For part of their childhoods Maria and her siblings attended the public school where William was schoolmaster.
Later, they attended a private school he founded. After William Mitchell ended his career as a teacher, Maria found important mentors and supporters in several of her other teachers. One sent her a hundred dollars with which to buy books to continue her individual study; another helped her to acquire a telescope. The three most important skills taught in schools were reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. Maria grew up in an environment where home learning through books was also encouraged. Her mother had been a librarian at Siasconset, a community on the island, and Maria studied mathematics and astronomy books throughout her childhood.