Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

January 3, 1867.  Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in 50 years.  He said one of the most conservative members of the Faculty had said within 16 days that it would come about within 10 years.  I asked him if I could go into one of Prof. Peirce’s recitations.  He said there was nothing to keep me out and that he would let me know when they came . . . .

The following Friday, Maria was there with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, and asked Peirce (I believe this is Benjamin Peirce she refers to) upon his arrival if she could attend.  He answered in the affirmative but Maria was apparently unhappy with the response saying to him, “Can not you say ‘I shall be happy to have you.’  He answered her in the way she expressed though she noted that he didn’t seem happy, possibly in part because he was in a state of “undress” – meaning likely not up to snuff for a Harvard professor presenting to his Harvard students.  Maria and Phebe took their seats, Maria apparently turned crimson (pun intended) when the male students arrived, and Peirce made several mistakes in his formulas.  She also noted that the room was “very common looking” – something that she noted would never be allowed at Vassar.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865{1854} Oct. 27. Last night I heard Josiah Quincy Jr. {president of Harvard College} lecture on the Mormons. It was the first lecture of the Atheneum course. I went to the first last winter and listened with contempt to Matthew Hale Smith {Unitarian minister}. I expected of a Quincy something very much above a Smith, but the distance between the two men, is not, after all, so very great.

Both lectures were anecdotal, if Quincy’s was more witty it was also more inelegant. It would have made a pleasant drawing room lecture but had not the dignity desirable in a Lyceum discourse, where it is presumable something will be taught. But the fault is not with Matthew Hale Smith nor with Jos. Quincy Jr. While the community is the same and the taste for lectures the same, and the lecture going people are no more enlightened, great men will come down to the level and small ones will struggle up to it . . .

This is most certainly Maria at her pointed and “no mincing of words” best. I think her words speak for themselves. She was disappointed, feeling she was to learn something but the speakers felt that they needed to reach their audience – these off-islanders, or “coofs,” did not know the audience they were dealing with on Nantucket obviously! Life-long and eager learners, who continued to educate themselves, the speakers did not realize just how savvy and well-educated these Nantucketers were. I would love to know if others in the audience felt the same as Maria.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellJuly 15 {1863}

My dear Sally,

I am very glad to have the pattern for the drawers. I shall return the specimen by Mitchell {Sally’s son William Mitchell Barney} as I understand how to make them.

{Niece} Maria’s little dress fits nicely and I tell Kate the two children won’t suffer, if they have no other dress for the winter. All that Maria’s is wrong, is in being too large around the waist. I am sorry to hear that Aunt Maria’s cough has not gone. Father thinks he has the whooping cough. He coughs incessantly, but is pretty well. He has been to Boston today.

Tell Aunt Maria to stick to the doctor’s medicine and use a plenty of it. I am ready to pay the bill. I wish I could send you some currants as I have a great many. We have very few cherries . . . .

I think Mitchell is alright 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.

When this letter was written by Maria Mitchell to her eldest sister, Sally Mitchell Barney, William and Maria Mitchell were now living in Lynn, Massachusetts near the youngest Mitchell child, Eliza Katherine Mitchell Dame or Kate as she was called. Sally still lived on Nantucket and she and her husband had sent their son, William Mitchell Barney, to visit his grandfather and aunt. Maria also talks about the price of cherries, other family members suffering from whooping cough, and the fact that she and her father plan to attend the Harvard College commencement. “Aunt Maria” was Maria Coleman, Lydia Mitchell’s sister whom she and William named Maria after. I myself remember trying on winter clothes that my grandmother was making for me in the summer – oh that itchy wool! I am sure that Maria’s two nieces felt very much the same.

If you have been enjoying these posts, I am now also writing for “Nantucket Chronicle,” an online magazine − http://www.nantucketchronicle.com. My column will be about Nantucket history – with a focus on island women – and the column is called “Nation of Nantucket.”

JNLF