The Power of Memory

Little things are at play in my mind. I do not have a photographic memory but I have perhaps something similar with voice and smell and experience that holds onto the littlest things. I remember conversations with exact detail, sounds, smells, and what someone was wearing during some event or other. Unfortunately, such a memory can be a little frustrating and overwhelming, especially when someone says, “I never said that,” because I remember with clear detail what a person said or did. My niece also has such a memory. She brings things up from when she was very little or reminds someone that they actually said this, not that. To top it off, she is only eight years old! Such a memory can also be a painful because people who are no longer with us and activities you participated in with them are so fresh in your mind.

I was probably only 3 or so but I remember visiting my great-grandmother (Mama Minnie) with my father. I remember her opening the garage door – they had an automatic opener very avant-garde in the 1970s – and seeing her standing on the stoop inside. I remember the long bench in her kitchen and the gentle swooshing noise as she moved with her walker slightly dragging one of her braced legs – she had Paget’s Disease. I remember her dark living room with sofas encrusted in plastic – protection from wear and tear! I remember my other great grandmother – Other Nana – and sitting at her feet playing with the laces on her shoes as my parents and Nana worked in the basement. I was not allowed down there so I sat with Other Nana, eating gum drops out of the cow candy dish and watching “The Osmond Show.” I was less than three years old, maybe two at the most – my brother had not yet been born.

Sometimes a smell will overpower me, as if a person from my past is right there. My Nana’s perfume for instance. Or a place. At 12, I remember sitting under the Mitchell House grape arbor listening to Elizabeth Yager speak of the Mitchell family. She knew so much detail that I always thought of her being related to them. She wasn’t – but she did know cousins of Maria’s. She was probably in her 80s as she sat there on the bench talking to me. I sat on the flagstone. I remember her visor and her neat housedress in light blue and her Ked sneakers with tennis socks.

The more I remember these people the more they continue to live. I am a firm believer in that. That is why at the Mitchell House, when someone is on a tour with us, it’s more like storytelling in a way. Recounting events in the lives of the Mitchells, their own stories or words about their daily life. Bringing it to life so that we not only learn about the past, but also the people who shaped our present. Retelling the stories of Maria’s cousins and nieces and nephews – stories I learned from those who knew them (like Elizabeth) – it’s not a direct connection but it’s closer than you find in most museums. It’s unique and makes their stories my own and their stories yours as well.


Hot Off the Press: The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island


I posted this a few months ago. I post it again as a way to say thank you to Mitchell’s Book Corner (MBC) for featuring my book in its advertisement in the March 26 edition of the Inquirer and Mirror. As a MBC alum, I think I burst a button – between the ad and having my book on the front table at MBC – thank you!

Well, I finally did it. After many, many requests and at the urging of many, I published a small book. It took me a little longer than I hoped but I have managed to take my master’s thesis and put it into something I hope will start a better conversation concerning Nantucket women and give them more credit then, “they had to do it.” As the curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections, it’s pretty obvious what I am up to my ears in besides historic preservation, collections care, and outreach; I also eat, sleep, and breathe Nantucket history – women, Quakers, architecture, the history of the MMA, you name it, I am constantly reading, researching, and learning about it. Do I know everything? No – I learn something new every single day. But, in my travels with Nantucket women – thus far – I have come to some new conclusions and this became the basis of my master’s thesis and thus this small book I have created. I feel that I am bringing something new to the table and I hope this helps to open the discussion. I have a lot more research and writing to do – I have only barely scratched the surface here – but I felt it was time to get that conversation going.

Books are available at several places on island, including at the MMA Gift Shops, and by contacting me. A portion of the proceeds will go to a restricted fund for the Mitchell House for conservation purposes.


Women’s Suffrage and Lady Gaga

Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

I have posted this during Women’s History Month before but because it is March and again Women’s History Month, I think it’s worth repeating. It’s clever and helps to tell an important story in women’s history while giving it a bit of a 21st century twist. It comes via the National Women’s History Project.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

Feb 4 {1871}

My dear Sally,

Anne Maria wants thee to give or lend her that cameo pin. She thinks that she would like to wear it. I have been to Phil{Adelphia} again, and to Baltimore and really enjoyed it. I found in Baltimore some very nice schools. I met the family of Ephraim Gardner at one of my lectures.

Of course I have made some money, but I have charged too little. So, now, just as I have no applications, I have raised my price. It is a very easy thing to do, as for an audience of 250 I do not need to raise my voice at all.

I feel very independent at Vassar because I find that even at the rate II have charged in lecturing, it pays better, a great deal than Vassar. Of course it is not a desirable business. I stood for the first time in Baltimore and found it just as easy.

Anne Maria (or Annie Maria as her family called her) was the only child of William Forster Mitchell and his wife Charlotte Dow Mitchell. She was, of course, named for two of her aunts. The cameo Maria refers to in this letter to her eldest sister is a cameo Maria acquired in Italy on her 1858 trip. She purchased it for her mother. This cameo has descended through the Mitchell family – Annie Maria’s line – and is still in the family. It was loaned to me for an exhibition I created on Maria and Nantucket women in 2007. Obviously, Sally did loan – or in this case did give –it to Annie Maria.

No matter where Maria went, she met someone from Nantucket – the same story continues today for Nantucketers – even halfway across the world. What I find interesting is her discussion of increasing her fees for lectures – Maria was never paid an equal amount to that of the male professors at Vassar during her tenure and it was a constant source of battles for her. But obviously, the lecture circuit helped to pay the bills.


In Celebration of Black History Month

The steamship ISLAND HOME. Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

The steamship ISLAND HOME. Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Frankly, every month (read day) should be Black History Month and every month (read day, again) should be Women’s History Month. In my travels through island history, and particularly island women’s history, I have never ceased to be amazed by the remarkable people who have called Nantucket home. Maria Mitchell would want you to know about each and every person – likely saying they did more than she. One woman who has fallen through the cracks is Hannah Cook Boston. Many are familiar with the name Absalom Boston. Among many of Boston’s accomplishments, he was the well-known black captain of the all-black-crewed whaleship Industry, as well as a successful businessman, abolitionist, and one of the founders of the African Meetinghouse and School. Twice widowed, Boston married Hannah Cook in 1827 a woman with whom I would like you to be familiar. Born in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1795, Hannah Cook Boston instantly became a mother to Absalom’s three children. Hannah was an equal partner in her marriage, just as all Nantucket women were. She became the mother of five children, helped with the creation and running of the African Meetinghouse, and supported her husband in his work with desegregation of the island schools. When Absalom died in 1855, he left Hannah a sizable estate. However, over a short time, the estate dwindled to almost nothing because of the economic downturn on the island due to many things, including the Great Fire of 1846, the demise of whaling, and the Gold Rush, which lured so many away from Nantucket.

Faced with having to find a means to support herself, Hannah looked for work outside the home. Unlike many other black island women however, Hannah did not become a domestic servant. Instead, she went to sea – following in the footsteps of her own family and her husband – by becoming the stewardess on the steamship Island Home, the first female steamship stewardess in fact. She was not serving a family, but working for the Nantucket Steamboat Company – taking care of its female passengers in the Ladies Cabin. Hannah passed away in 1857 after only a short time serving on board the steamer, but her taking this position encouraged other island women to follow suit, for several others were later employed as stewardesses on Nantucket steamships.

Now here is another thing, Maria Mitchell traveled on board the Island Home in 1857. She likely knew Hannah already but even more exciting to me is that Hannah likely was the stewardess during Maria Mitchell’s trip – the beginning of Maria’s trip to the southern United States and later Europe as a young lady’s chaperone. Now, how interesting is that?!


O, Pioneers (Well, Maybe Not Exactly So)

Mitchell House

The Blizzard of 2015. Snow, wind, more wind. No power, no mobile phones (horror!) But we do have – wood burning stove, gas range top, candles, lanterns.

It’s when the power goes out for a long period of time that you are forced to slow down and live a bit closer to the way that Maria Mitchell and her family once did. Having a ten-month old son provided us with a different perspective this time around. His first blizzard. We had to make sure we had extra water on hand for bottle making and water to heat for bottle washing. While it was cold outside, we warmed the house with a woodstove that my parents were very smart to purchase when building our family home in 1983. It heats the entire house and keeps us nice and warm – as long as we feed it all night! It provides us with another stovetop to cook on, to heat water on, and now, to heat baby bottles on. It also is a place where we can warm our toes after going outside and to dry out our hats, mittens, boots, and socks. This blizzard however we found that our Siberian Husky had even had enough of the wind and snow and cold. Typically, she will walk in all weather – we say she is better than the post office – but this time she wouldn’t leave the driveway. That’s how you know it really is a blizzard.

View from the attic window.

View from the attic window.

When I was finally able to get in to check the Mitchell House and other MMA properties, this is what I found. It made me think about some of the pieces I have posted over the years from Maria Mitchell’s journals where she writes about the heavy snow and cold and sleighing along Main Street or the temperatures never getting above zero. She recounts all the games she played or poems and rhymes she wrote or new tatting she worked on – all to pass the time. And being in the Mitchell House always gives me a renewed perspective on how cold it got in houses then – especially in a room not lit by a fire. So the next time the power goes out (as long as you are safe), take some time to relish it, accept it, slow down, enjoy the people you are with. Read a book, just sit quietly doing nothing, nap, or better yet, write a poem or a silly rhyme. Even better, write silly rhymes about one another as Maria did with her Vassar students at her annual dome parties. Be creative, rely on your brain to entertain you – not your “device.”

Curator's Cottage

Curator’s Cottage

I will make one plea here – and that is for people to at least have a landline that can call out locally and receive calls. Relying on your mobile phone is not always good as this latest storm illustrated. Landlines were the one thing not damaged by the storm – at least in most places on island. And this does not mean a cordless phone. You need to have one of those good old-fashioned cord phones with the push buttons where the handset is connected by a cord to the rest of the phone folks! It is the only way we really knew what was going on – my parents calling us from off-island to give us weather and power updates.


Would Maria Tweet?

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865From an earlier blog-

Really, I am not sure if she would. Maria Mitchell was a fairly private person. While she did keep journals, she kept them close and after the Great Fire of 1846, when she saw all of the papers and other articles blowing about the streets of Town that were not burned up, she destroyed all of her personal letters and journals. That is why most of her papers that we have today are dated after the Great Fire – there is very, very little from before the fire.

Would she Tweet “Discovered a comet tonight!” or “Gold medal from King of Denmark here boy is it heavy!” or maybe a “That Asa Gray, he wrote ‘Sir” on my letter of invite to American Academy of Arts and Sciences and crossed it off – what a slap in the face!” – maybe that was too many characters for a Tweet? But then she could Tweet her students to remind them of late night observing or maybe blog about it. She embraced technology – albeit of the late nineteenth century – and she was constantly learning – even teaching herself Greek at the age of 70.

But if she blogged or Tweeted, I think it would be more about science and education and conversing with her students and other scientists than anything personal. Maybe a Tweet after one of her daily nature walks, “Just back from walk round campus – saw Henery {the groundhog that lived around the Observatory} and Indigo Bunting. Don’t forget observing @ midnight girls!”


Library/Research Center Update

Crack repair in MMA Science Library Wing basement.

Crack repair in MMA Science Library Wing basement.

Work keeps progressing. Mason Wayne Morris told me that once he started, it would move quickly and he was not wrong, that’s for sure. They have made the repairs to the interior cracks in the basement of the Wing now. These cracks are probably due to the movement of the building soon after it was constructed and then in a few places, simply shrinkage caused by time. In the photographs here, you can see where they have filled the cracks with concrete – along the walls and where the walls meet the ceiling.

In one image you will notice a “faux bois” (false wood) effect to the poured concrete wall. This is on many sections of the concrete walls in the basement. What caused it? Well, the forms they made in the 1930s to pour the foundation were wood and once dry, when they pulled the wood out, beautiful wood graining was left behind. Some people would pay a lot of money to have this and in it’s on our cellar walls!

"Faux bois" concrete.

“Faux bois” concrete.

Morris also inspected the book stack supports in the cellar of the Wing which we believe are load bearing. He did this to check for rust per the structural engineer but I am happy to report they are rust free.

Now, he is back outside getting ready to replace the steel lintels at the top of the windows on the main floor. These have not had the water penetration that the basement windows have had but there is rust and thus, some cracking of the stucco. Then, he will have to make repairs to a small section on the east side where there has been some map cracking – large pattern cracking which is due to water penetration and follows the shape of the terracotta tiles below. So, in this case, the cracks form rectangles.

If you have not been up to Vestal Street to take a look, please do! We are moving along nicely on the exterior and hope to complete the plans for the interior and begin moving forward with that work. And again, a thank you to the Community Preservation Committee for the grant that has allowed us to do all of this exterior preservation work.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

Jan 23. {1857} Foreseeing that the thermometer would show a very low point last night, we sat up until near midnight when it showed 1 ½ below zero. The starts shone brightly and the wind blew fresh from WNW. This morning the wind is the same and the mercury stood at 6 ½ below zero at 7 o’clock and now at 10 a.m. is not above zero . . . .

There are 700 barrels of flour in town, it is admitted that fresh meat is getting scarce. The streets are almost impassable from the snow drifts. There was no ice in our lodging room last night and the thermometer in the sitting room was above 40 showing that the house is not easily chilled.

The Mitchells were living at the bank and the thick walls with a brick exterior as well as perhaps some more “modern” heat sources for the main portion of the bank, likely helped keep the family warmer – much of their living space was on the second floor of the Pacific National Bank. Given their cloistered existence during the winter of 1857 (and there were others as well), the Mitchells made do with what they had were quite creative in finding new things to do and even new things to learn – from Whist to making a new pair of boots or a morning dress, Maria Mitchell, her parents, and several of the younger members of the Mitchell family used the solitude to their advantage.


Annie Jump Cannon


A few weeks ago, Annie Jump Cannon was the featured Google “doodle.” Google featured Maria Mitchell as the doodle a few years ago to celebrate her birthday and has been doing a good job of featuring well-known and lesser-known woman who have made a difference in our world.

Annie Jump Cannon was among the founding members of the MMA but she was also instrumental in the development of our astronomy program. With a growing desire to further develop a fledgling astronomy program in 1906, the MMA began a dialogue with Harvard University’s Observatory and its director, Edward Pickering, Ph.D. The connection to Harvard was to become essential to the success of the beginning years of the Maria Mitchell Observatory and continued a legacy of friendship and work – Maria Mitchell and her father worked with the Bonds who once ran the observatory at Harvard and the families were close friends.

Besides his advice and assistance, Pickering asked a member of his staff, Annie Jump Cannon to advise and assist the MMA. This “provided an indispensable collaboration for Nantucket astronomy” with Cannon spending two weeks on the island in both 1906 and 1907 lecturing and teaching. While back at Harvard, she continued to teach the students on Nantucket by mail. Cannon would go on to be recognized as the leading woman astronomer of her generation and also as the founder of the astronomy department at the MMA.

Completed in 1908, the Maria Mitchell Observatory now was in need of a permanent astronomer. An Observatory Committee was developed and chaired by Annie Jump Cannon. From 1909 through 1911, the Association was able to employ an astronomer to teach classes, observe, provide lectures, and open the observatory for public observing for approximately a month each summer. As the demand grew, the MMA realized that a more extensive program was needed and the Astronomical Fellowship Committee began to raise funds for an Astronomical Fellowship Fund. With the support of many generous donors and a matching gift from Andrew Carnegie, by 1911 the MMA had the funds it needed to support the fellowship and began its search for an astronomer who would conduct research and provide lectures, classes and open nights for the public from mid-June through mid-December. The fellow would spend the remainder four months in research and study – every fourth year a full year of study would be spent in an American or European observatory.

With Pickering, Cannon developed the Harvard Classification Scheme, an attempt to organize and classify stars by temperature. She was one of many women whom Pickering hired to reduce data and carry out astronomical calculations. She would go on to become the Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard. She received a regular Harvard appointment but just two years before she retired – she was named the William C. Bond Astronomer. Today, there is the Annie Cannon Prize which is awarded to women astronomers who have made outstanding contributions in astronomy.