Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865
March 15, 1858. Today an eclipse of the sun was to come off, and with Mr. B and the Westons I went to the Observatory of the Capitol to look at the phenomenon . . . . The old gent speaks no English, but the bad French of both of us made a language. He had placed three telescopes of ordinary mounting in a terrace which overlooks the Forum, and as it was very cloudy, we looked at the magnificent views of the Alban and Sabine Mts. instead of looking at the Eclipse . . . . A dozen young men suddenly formed into a line and Prof. Calandrelli presented his pupils, who gracefully lifted their caps. They were fine looking fellows of about 16 and they all smiled as they greeted me and were evidently pleased at being noticed . . . .
Maria Mitchell was in Rome in 1858, a part of her European trip that started with her serving as a young woman’s chaperone. When the young woman, Prudence Swift, was called home due to her father’s bankruptcy (thus no more funds for the trip), Maria Mitchell remained and continued to travel. She was the first woman to gain entry to the Vatican Observatory – not even one of her heroines, Mary Somerville, ever gained entry.
I have been spending quite a bit of time working with our Special Collection books here at the MMA. This collection includes rare and out-of-print books that have been collected since the early 1900s and span the ages from the 1500s to the 20th century. The collection is made up of botany, natural science, zoology, astronomy, Nantucket, and other books that relate to the work that has been ongoing at the MMA since its founding in 1902. The collection also includes Maria Mitchell’s personal library – a listing of some of the books can be found here on our website – and the books of her family members, including those of her father. It is simply an amazing collection.
My latest task is to clean and move the books to the new climate controlled storage space I was able to create with funding from the M. S. Worthington Foundation. A climate system and state-of-the-art conservation friendly bookcases were installed over the last few years and now the move is on. But before I can move the books, each one has to be cleaned. This involves dusting the cover and spine, as well as the text block of each book; wiping the same areas with a vulcanized rubber sponge; and then finally vacuuming those same parts. It takes me an hour or more to complete one shelf – which is between ten and twenty books depending on the size of the books. It’s tedious and long and I have to wear some equipment to protect myself from the dust. But, oh wow the things I am re-discovering or uncovering for the first time. My hope is that once I have cleaned and moved them, I can get the catalog of these books online for the public to see what we have and to come and use them – we have some rare ones that are hard to find and historians, scientists, and others (aside from those who use them now) would love to use these. They are too well-kept of a secret!
For your enjoyment, I have included a few pages from The American Flora Vol. II by A. B. Strong. 1848 was its original publication date. The hand-colored images are beautiful. The second is from Orchids: Their Culture and Management by W. Watson. It was published in London in 1890. The cover and spine are phenomenal – they certainly don’t make book covers like this anymore!
The Country of the Pointed Firs is my favorite book. Written by Sarah Orne Jewett in 1896, it details the life of a village along the Maine coast. For many years I wanted to visit her home, now a historic house museum owned by Historic New England. Because she is the author of my favorite book and such a strong female presence in the 19th century as Maria Mitchell was, I felt it was a place I needed to see.
I like to think that a young Sarah, born just two years after Maria’s comet discovery, was inspired by Maria when she was a young girl. She was certainly encouraged by her father to be a strong, educated, and independent woman – similar to the support Maria received from her father, William.
After being disappointed last year in my attempt to visit the Jewett home, this year I contacted the site manager, Peggy Wishart, directly to ask if she would be willing to provide me with a private tour – and she was! The house is very close to its original condition and about two years ago Historic New England acquired Jewett’s desk – the one on which she wrote her books. It sits in front of the window in the upstairs hall looking over the street and center of South Berwick, Maine just as it did in Sarah’s day.
My interest is also keen on this desk area as it reminds me of the small study William built for his children – most often used by Maria. The small landing turned closet study has a built in desk and drawer and two shelves and most importantly a window that faces south and looks over the street – just as Sarah’s does. From there, Maria could see people as they made their way up and down the street, be warmed by the southern sun, and work on her “Juvenile Inquirer” on a Saturday morning away from the hubbub of her numerous siblings.