If you have taken a stroll or drive-by, you may have noticed that the Mitchell House has been the center of attention on Vestal Street over the past few months!
Thanks to a generous matching grant from Preservation Massachusetts and the 1772 Foundation, in addition to the match from the M. S. Worthington Foundation, the Mitchell House has had all of its historic sashes re-glazed and painted, as well as its doors and trim! Some minor repairs had to be made to the front porch and an attic window sash but all in all, the House is in good shape and happy to be boasting a better paint job!
The painting was completed by island painter Jim Tyler and his crew – long-time painters at the MMA. And the window sash was addressed by our carpenter who focuses on historic properties, Matthew Anderson.
If you think it looks a little darker than before, you are correct. The paint had seriously faded. This is the color the House has always been – well, at least for a hundred or more years. At one point, it was brown but probably not during the William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell (Maria’s parents) ownership – likely the Peleg Mitchell Junior time or when his wife lived in the House just in the summers. The curators before me had not tracked the color number and I did remember it being more grey – and we do have photographs – but I finally found a good paint chip while we were making some repairs to the roofwalk hatch!
Thank you to Preservation Massachusetts, the 1772 Foundation, the M. S. Worthington Foundation and the people who completed the work! Mitchell House is ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.
I may have written about this before. Lydia Coleman Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s mother – and the mother of ten children in all – has a small, simple writing desk. It has several drawers and a flip down top. It has two compartments where papers and ink can be stored – and in the case of Lydia, the nib of your pen can be mightily sharpened (it’s a HUGE gouge she created!).
This fall, as I do each fall once the humidity is low, I waxed it with an appropriate conservation wax. And while doing so, I realized that I had forgotten all about the back compartment. It has little pigeon-hole cubbies and another news article similar to what she pasted in the front compartment. I am not sure how I forgot about this – but I’ve been in the Mitchell House for quite some time and my brain seems to be overflowing with things. So it was sort of a re-discovery I guess you would call it.
The interesting thing is that this was not Lydia doing the pasting of an article this time. Note the “1862” inked next to the article – which had to be pasted in sideways as the other one was. (I think that I have noted that when I transcribed the first many years ago, it was before mobile phones so taking a photograph was near impossible with trying to focus, light, and so on. Thus, I sat scrunched over in a chair with a pencil and paper holding the desk with one hand and scribbling with the other – the curator at the time said I looked like a pretzel! This time, iPhone in hand and, “Voila!”) Lydia died in 1861 and by 1862, Maria and her father, William, were living in Lynn, MA. I think the writing in the desk on this side is William’s own! Interesting. So, perhaps he was continuing the trend – perhaps he knew she would do this if she were alive, perhaps it was a way to keep her memory going, perhaps it was a way for him to show her what he had done. I’m not sure what was happening here or the intentions but I’m not sure it’s really about William boasting as it is about him loving and missing Lydia. So, while we do not know, that’s the story I will stick to in my mind.
This summer has obviously been a lot different at the Mitchell House. The House is closed. I am all alone inside. It is incredibly quiet – just the voices of occasional passersby, children on bikes, a car. I’m alone with my thoughts as I quietly work on projects that need to be done every year. And I am working on projects that need to be done periodically – though not every year – and this summer allowed me to focus on those projects in particular.
As I sit and work on various small cleaning and conservation projects, memories come back. Handling a large piece of crockery to do a more in-depth cleaning, I gently turn it over to find its accession label. I know the person’s handwriting for most of these labels and sometimes I catch my breath – many of these people are now gone. And while they were very much a part of the Mitchell House and the MMA, they were also a part of my world, my growing up, and they are still a part of me. They were my mentors, my friends. When I started volunteering at age twelve, I would be regaled with stories of the Mitchells by women who had been friends with Maria Mitchell’s cousins. Those stories not only continue in me – I pass them on to whomever comes in contact with the Mitchell House – interns, volunteers, visitors, MMA staff. In that way, Maria and her family – and those women who told me the stories – live on and their stories are made even more real.
So, my time at the Mitchell House is a little different, and at times, a bit more personal. But, I think that is another layer that makes the MMA the special place that it is. That personal touch; that almost direct reach back to Maria and her cousins. The MMA has a heart and soul that lives on even though all of those people are no longer with us – not just our namesake but the people who built the Association in her honor and to promote and preserve her legacy and home.
Sometimes the same routine, the same thing is a comfort. Especially now.
This was my view the other day. While we are in troubled times on so many levels, sometimes “the same” is a comfort. Routine is a comfort; a safe place. Sitting in the 1825 Kitchen, in my “sit-able on-able chair” as I like to call it, I could hear an American Robin who has a nest nearby and the Carolina Wren. It was just after lunchtime and I wondered if Lydia Coleman Mitchell could take a brief break after feeding her family, would she have heard similar things. Likely not the Carolina Wren – they seem to have become more of a staple up here then they once were due to climate change. But as I have noted before, the sunlight coming through the windows is mainly the same.
You might ask, if we are limited in what we may be able to do when we re-open, why have I “woken up” the Mitchell House. For a few reasons. Most importantly for the artifacts. They’ve been boxed or covered or placed away. They need to not be in that situation all year long and I need to be able to assess their conditions over the course of the months to come. I need to conduct various possible small conservation projects, to clean them. And, if I want to try and share some of them with you virtually, then I need easier access to them. I hope, too that we will be able to welcome people in at some point this season albeit in a very different way.
But personally, and as curator of the Mitchell House, it’s nice to see everything set back in its place. The same. Routine. It may only be me seeing it at this point but I drink it all in. It calms me. It makes me forget the rest of the world outside the door for a few moments. I wish that for everyone – a place you can have to yourself for a moment – even if its standing in stark quiet in your kitchen – where you can breathe in the quiet and exhale the calm and push your thoughts to everyone as we sit amidst this unknown and unsettled time. Hopefully, soon, we can be together again and the Mitchell House door will open out onto the street to welcome you again. Know that I am inside working and awaiting your return – as does Maria and the Mitchells. They are here too – as always.
Yes, we need some of those right now.
The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic has all of us worried, on edge, and exhausted. And then to add insult to injury, we here on Nantucket have been having a truly dreadful spring, weather-wise. Very cold, days of rain and mist and fog and wind. Now, this is common for Nantucket in spring – feels more like winter – but it keeps us from being able to walk, hang out in the yard, etc. It probably is a blessing with social distancing – keeping us all indoors – but I need to dig in the earth! Hear the birds! Smell the spring air!
Mitchell House “Beauty of Spring” Tulip
Maria Mitchell was also a naturalist and her daily nature walks were a constant – I’ve noted them before. She would note changes in her journals, talk about what she witnessed. Even the simplest thing from a bloom to the color of a flower – she noted it.
Mitchell House “Beauty of Spring” tulip – the deer and the bunnies missed them!
So if you see any signs of spring like I found here, then why don’t you “Tweet” us back some signs of spring images? I did see some goslings and was surprised but then realized it’s May!
Somebody is in our house. They sit among our furniture. They open and close the shades just as we did. They walk up and down our stairs, climb to the roofwalk, watch the same patterns of sun fall across the kitchen floor. They hear the wind as we did and the birds in the grape arbor. They hear the rainfall on the roof of our house and witness the darkness outside as it creeps inside.
Have you ever thought about those who came before you in your own home? I often do. I think about the people who lived in my parents’ 1780s tavern and the people who stayed the night or drank a pint of ale before the firebox in what was likely the tavern room and now serves as the large and sunny family room. I certainly think about this at the Mitchell House. I wonder what the Mitchells think of my presence – that the house is a museum that honors their daughter, sister, cousin, niece. I wonder how they feel about us being here. Literally touching their belongings (with gloves on!) and talking about them and their belongings and how they lived in the house and what they thought. Whether we have everything as accurately as we think. How a private Quaker family feels about being on display. How they feel about visitors traipsing across their kitchen floor, marveling at the grain painting or the tiny narrow back stairs.
What will people think when we are gone?
All of the interns at the Mitchell House has been very enthusiastic about learning the ropes of what happens in a historic house museum. I want them to have the full experience and tell them at the beginning, they do everything I do except clean the bathroom.
From conservation and accessioning of artifacts to research projects in the depths of the archives to teaching children’s history classes. They give tours to the public, help to host special events for both the Mitchell House and the MMA, develop small exhibits and special tours, work on other initiatives, and they get into some real serious cleaning projects among many other things.
Appropriate museum vacuuming is one such project – they all do it just as I do. However, I seem to have found a kindred spirit in the vacuuming department this time. While she has been working on a myriad of projects, including an in-depth research project on Mitchell family portraits in the Mitchell House, Sabrina was practically grinning from ear-to-ear about vacuuming. She LOVES it – probably because, in part with our HEPA museum vacuum that you wear on your back, she feels like a “ghostbuster.” I have never had an intern that was so enthusiastic about this task. I myself may not be vacuuming the Mitchell House until September – or else we may have to arm wrestle for who gets to vacuum!
Thank you, Sabrina!
For the season! Come by for a tour. Come by to say hello. Come by to meet this year’s Mitchell House intern, Sabrina Smith, a 2017 graduate of Mount Holyoke College, who is already hard at work on several projects and eager to share. Come and check out the baby camlet and infant cap passed down through the Mitchell family since the 1700s and which was donated just last July.
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.
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.