A Simple Coat Peg Tells a Story of Nantucket’s Tinsmith

Peleg's coat peg

This was previously published in Yesterday’s Island this summer and on my Nantucket Chronicle column, “The Nation of Nantucket.” If you keep up with “Maria Mitchell’s Attic,” then you should know who Peleg Mitchell Junior is!

It’s small, oddly shaped, has a screw-like quality at one end and a rounded nub at the other, and has a red and white gummed label adhered to it. People often ask, “What is that?” as they peer into the case to see some of the smaller items in the Mitchell House collection.

“That, is Peleg Mitchell’s coat peg,” we answer. Who is Peleg Mitchell and why do we have his coat peg? Peleg Mitchell Jr, like Maria Mitchell herself, was the youngest of ten children born to Peleg Mitchell Sr and his wife, Lydia Cartwright Mitchell in 1802. Peleg Mitchell Jr (Peleg) lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria Mitchell’s family moved to the Pacific National Bank when she was 18. Her father, as bank cashier, was in charge of the entire bank and housing above the bank came with the position. Thus, when they moved out, William sold the home at 1 Vestal to his youngest sibling, Peleg; the MMA has the original bill of sale.

Peleg was a tinsmith. In fact, he and his partner James Austin were the only tinsmiths practicing at the time so they had a very busy shop. Think of tinware, in part, as the Tupperware of the time – tin was used for all sorts of things – lanterns, candleholders, food containers, colanders, graters, lanterns, boxes . . . it was fairly cheap, easy to fabricate quickly, and just plain ubiquitous. Peleg was a leader within the Friends (Quaker) meeting and with the schisms that occurred in the faith, he would become a Wilburite while his older brother William would become a Gurneyite. As a leader within the meeting, Peleg also hosted some smaller meetings at the house at 1 Vestal Street in the front sitting room. One of his (probably) many tinsmithing apprentices was one of his nephews, William Forster Mitchell, Maria’s younger brother. This tinsmithing background would help – in part – Forster (as he was referred to) assist in the founding of the Industrial Arts Department at Howard College – Howard University today – in Washington, DC. He and his Uncle Peleg must have been close after this apprenticeship as they also corresponded quite a bit when Forester was the superintendent of Haverford College. Their letters can be found in the Haverford archives – it was founded as a Quaker school.

Back to the coat peg. It is small object – but one of many that the MMA has in its collection at the Mitchell House that belonged to the family. Made of whalebone, it likely screwed into a panel somewhere in the house that was strapped to the plaster – serving as a special coat hook just for Peleg. The large gummed label was unfortunately but likely done in the early part of the twentieth century so that it wasn’t misplaced or someone in the family did not forget what it was and to whom it belonged. In any case, it was cataloged as part of the collection in the 1950s. The donor is unknown which may mean that it drifted about the 1 Vestal Street house a bit; the house became a museum in 1903 coming to the MMA directly from the family so anything that was in the house from Peleg’s and his wife’s time in it simply remained. I have a feeling this might have been still in its place in the wall into the 1950s before someone chose to remove it for safekeeping maybe while some conservation work was being done or so that someone didn’t paint over it or forget what it was and to whom it belonged.

JNLF

Important New Donation Made to the Mitchell House

Camlet

In June, I was contacted by a Mitchell family member inquiring if we might be interested in a family piece. This piece has descended through the Peleg Mitchell Jr. side of the family. Peleg, the youngest of William Mitchell’s brothers, purchased the house at 1 Vestal Street and lived in it until his death in the late 1880s.

In early July, the family member arrived at 1 Vestal Street having brought not one but two items all the way from California. From her bag she produced a camlet (baby blanket) and a small white cotton infant’s cap – both of which had descended in the Mitchell family via the oldest daughter since 1733!

The camlet is dark brown with a beautiful peacock blue silk border. Originally, camlets were woven of camel hair – thus the name – and later goat hair with silk and then basically any kind of wool or wool and cotton blends. This camlet is likely a cotton wool blend. Made even more special is the fact that a piece of twill tape is stitched to the underside of the blanket and on it are the initials and birth years of all of the baby girls who were wrapped in the blanket – it was then their task to pass the blanket on to their daughter. Once or twice it skipped a generation if no girls were born. This is a very unique record and makes the blanket even more special as we have its provenance right there on the blanket. Several small cards also came with the blanket speaking to its history. It is in wonderful condition having been cared for tremendously by its keepers. The infant’s cap is a treasure as well with a beautiful but simple cut piece sewn on to the main portion that gives a bit of a delicate sweep to the cap.

The babies wrapped in camlet from 1733 into 1980s.

We are truly grateful that the family felt that the Mitchell House was the place for these two items. They will of course be treasured and shared with visitors. It is a fitting return to the “homestead’ so to speak and we are truly grateful for the opportunity to protect, preserve, and share these two pieces.

JNLF