Like Small Clams at the Bottom of their Chairs

I posted this a few years ago but given our humidity, I felt it appropriate to re-blog.

I came across this beautiful little line-up the other day when I went to drop off more of my books at Mitchell’s Book Corner for them to sell and a certain line immediately came into my head.      “ . . . . that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.”

I am hoping that you will recognize that as the early part of the chapter on Nantucket in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  And all the more appropriate because it was at the bookstore!  Yes, they are not clams but mushrooms but that is what I immediately thought of.  Perhaps there is another book out there that refers to mushrooms all in a row but I was taken by these when I saw them.  Proudly standing up along Orange and Main Street; squished between brick wall and sidewalk.

And I have recounted before the connections between Melville and Maria Mitchell.  And add to that  ̶  Mitchell’s Book Corner was founded by Henry Mitchell “Mitch” Havermeyer, the only grandson of Maria Mitchell’s youngest brother Henry Mitchell, in 1968.


Children Making History – With Crafts and Butter

Working on a coin purse.

Mitchell House has an all-new week-long camp this summer – actually we have one in July (it was this past week) and one in August.  Children learn all about what life on Nantucket was like in Maria Mitchell’s day, learn about Maria and her family members, and then create a wide assortment of crafts and art related to the activities of each day.  After learning about eclipses, children create their own eclipse.  After talking about domestic life, they make butter and try their hand at some basic embroidery.  Coin purses, kaleidoscopes, and their own journals with marbled paper are just a few of the things that children will create as they spend their days at Mitchell House and exploring the sites of downtown Nantucket.  And, they even get to roll wooden hoops!  Too bad that I’m too old for this class!

Eclipse paintings.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

July 15. {1863}

My dear Sally . . .

            I think Mitchell is all right 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.

If you can’t be honest with your sibling, who can you be honest with?  Apparently, Sally Mitchell Barney’s son, William Mitchell Barney – known as Mitchell as his cousin William Mitchell Barney was known as Willie (how is that for honoring your father?!) – was visiting his aunt Maria and his grandfather, William Mitchell, at their home in Lynn, MA.  Sally still lived on Nantucket and I suspect Mitchell was not only visiting but getting some much needed help with his mathematics by his aunt Maria.  As always, she is brutally honest – he won’t pass a test in trigonometry (but, neither would I!).


Judith Macy, Island Entrepreneur

A few months back, I posted a blog about Nantucket’s infamous daughter, Kezia Coffin.  While she may have been someone of our past that many islanders are not fond of, her sister, Judith Macy (1729 – 1819), was a bit better and a Quaker in good stead.  Like her sister, Judith was an eighteenth century entrepreneur but one who did not have a monopoly on her fellow islanders and who played fair – as far as I can see.  Unlike many of her sister islanders however, Judith’s husband was at home.

Widowed after just two years of marriage, Judith married second husband, Caleb Macy, a man who had faced many financial failures in his short life.  Like most island men, Caleb had gone to sea but did not fare well – it was a claim of the fact that his health did not cooperate with the life found at sea.  According to their son Obed, Caleb found not just a life partner and someone to tend to their household and children in his marriage to Judith, but he also found someone to help him in his business dealings.  With ten children and her husband’s shoe making business to assist in, Judith found herself taking care of several men who boarded with the family.  Sometimes as many as twelve men joined her family of twelve at the dinner table.  These men were likely Caleb’s workers.  In her daybook, which is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association, Judith kept a fairly detailed, if sometimes scattered, account of items purchased and sold, work completed, and records concerning her boarders between 1784 and 1805.  Judith employed at least one of her daughters and several other women to spin wool, which she sold for profit.  In some cases, it appears that Judith hired out a daughter to do work, and she sold goods to her sons, several of whom were prosperous island merchants, including Obed.

The details of the lives of Judith and her sister, Kezia Coffin, and Mary Coffin Starbuck serve as some of the few examples of what life was like for women and the role they played in society and the island economy on Nantucket in the eighteenth century.   In reference to her boarders, Judith kept details of when they “came here to bord (sic)” and the number of meals they ate during the week.  For example, on the fifteenth day of the sixth month 1800, Judith recorded that boarder Daniel Gifford “Eat 2 meals this week” and on the sixth day of the seventh month 1800, he “Eate (sic) 7 meals this week.”  Judith “sold corn out of the crib,” nails, molasses, “scanes of yarn” – likely created in her home by herself, her daughters, and other women she                       hired – and candles.  She even made a record of candles that she sold to her son Silvanus.  Judith seems to have played the role of supplier and seller for Silvanus, selling wool for him and making him sign off on his acceptance of the payment by having him make a notation in her daybook.

Judith’s daybook served, not just as a record of what was happening, but as an account book for what she and people in her employ produced, what she sold, and her other income producing activities.  She kept track of how many hours people worked for her and on her behalf for others in her daybook.  It also appears that she may have made loans to people so that they could pay the rent on their homes (Perhaps owned by her sister?).  Judith Macy even kept a detailed tally of personal items she loaned to others – surprisingly, even noting the items she loaned to her own children.  Judith’s husband obviously did not disapprove of her work since she continued working for so many years – almost right until her death, it appears.  Meager evidence indicates that Caleb’s shoemaking business was successful and he owned a large amount of real estate on the island, so he did not need his wife to work.

Unlike her sister, Judith was a Quaker in good stead – serving on various committees, even serving as the clerk of the Women’s Meeting.  Thus, her Quaker beliefs and those of her husband may have furthered her ability to conduct so much business as a woman.  Judith may have been influenced in part by her sister’s entrepreneurial skills, but she was also living in a community that did not believe in idleness and needed everyone to work so that the island, its people, and its economy could survive.  In some respects, the island took this frontier style of life even further, allowing women to take on important roles within the community.

The image you see here is her home near Sunset Hill.


From: The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women  by Jascin Leonardo Finger

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

AGE: 54 years; Stature: 5 feet 5 ½ inches; Forehead: High;

EYES; Dark; NOSE: Straight; MOUTH: Medium; CHIN: Square;

HAIR: Grey; COMPLEXION: Dark; FACE: Round.

{Issued} 23 day of June 1873.

While it is not her own words, it is a description of Maria Mitchell.  It is her passport – a very large document in the neighborhood of roughly 16 inches by 22 inches with great swirls and the “United States of America” and official seals.  No photograph.  You have to remember that by this date, photographs were roughly only about twenty or so years in existence so having an attached photograph didn’t work, unless you wanted your tintype or daguerreotype to rip the passport in half!


Getting There

Last fall, you may remember, we received a gift that allowed us to work with our landscaper on re-doing the garden on Vestal Street in front of the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory.  I wrote a blog about it and then filled you in this spring on some of the planting.

Well, it needs some more work – onion grass is a BEAST to pull out – but we are getting there!  I’m happy to say that the mallow transplanted well, as did the Joe Pye Weed, and the Milkweed is popping up in all its random places.  I have also weeded out and planted some natives along the accessibility ramp at Hinchman House Natural Science Museum.  One will find regular garden plants mixed in – they are nice to still have and offer food to some of the visiting animals.  And along Mitchell House, I focus on heirloom plants, what was in William Mitchell’s garden and the other Mitchell family members who inhabited the House, and plants that were found in gardens in the nineteenth century.

I have installed plant tags to help identify the plants and I have two bigger garden signs that I created and are currently being fabricated (ah, the Internet).  They will be very small, printed signs on bamboo plaques but they will note why our gardens look a little messy.

We do want the milkweed – it’s a happy host to milkweed beetles and even more importantly to monarchs which are fast losing their habitat – in fact it’s gone in many places.  We used to have thousands of monarchs every year on Vestal – not anymore.  We are lucky if we see a few dozen.  So, a wildflower and native species garden – as it has been for decades and decades in that same spot – is very important for the bird, insect, and mammalian life that needs it and also supports the MMA’s mission – just look to our Hinchman House Natural Science Museum and Department and you understand.

So come take a look, and cheer on some of our teeny, tiny seedlings as they grow.  Feel free to pull the onion grass – but leave everything else!  But oh – you can chase the bunnies away – they are back and eating everything including all my Morning Glories and they have just about taken down two gallon-sized cardinal flower plants!


Stone Monument Conservation

On Saturday, June 1, we had our yearly stone monument conservation workshop.  We had some students from Preservation Institute Nantucket join us and these are some of the stones we worked on at Lot 471, the Captain Henry C. Pinkham Lot.  The captain, his first wife, and his second wife had their stones cleaned with a special cleaner specifically made for stone conservation.  One must be trained in cleaning and use the proper tools and cleaner.  One must also have permission form the cemetery to clean a stone – even of one’s own family – and one must never clean stones without permission from family members or descendants. 

There are several other people buried in the lot – their stones either never existed or unfortunately and sadly, went missing.  One of these family members was a carpenter who died in his early 50s in the Boston-area.  My theory about (at least) his lack of a stone is this: since Nantucket by the time he was in his 30s was in a deep economic downturn – there were only about 2,000 people left on the island – he left the island to find work.  There would not have been much for a carpenter here on island.  Perhaps he has no stone as he and his family could not afford one.

There are two other stones we chose not to clean during the workshop as they are loose and wobble where they attach to the foot.  But, another stone, the small lamb, we also cleaned.  It is the burial site of young Arthur, a one-year old child, the grandson of Henry Pinkham.  A lamb of course was a common symbol used for children who died.  At some point recently, someone planted a daffodil bulb at the base of the stone.  And, I wonder, if this person has been doing the same for other burial sites of children.


Like Candy Drops or Sourballs

A few weeks back, I noticed these growing over a picket fence and it just looked like candy to me.  I little dewy.  A bit of a blossom’s “fur” for lack of a better word – all reminded me of the dusting of powdered sugar over old fashioned sourballs.  It is actually clematis – which is now fully in bloom – gorgeous pink flowers!




Streetscapes are an important component to historic preservation.  What people seldom realize is that alterations anywhere in their yard or on their land will alter what a historic view has been.  This has happened all over Nantucket – and throughout the U.S. – and I often wonder what a person from the nineteenth century might think when houses have been demolished, moved on the site, or small ancillary buildings have been removed.  It really changes how a place looks – not just one particular lot – bit the whole historic feel of a street.  One things that we have lost a lot of on island is the secondary or ancillary buildings – outhouses, sheds, chicken coops, small barns.  Nantucket was not all lawns – yards had multiple uses and I believe I have written about this before.  They served as barnyard – for chickens and other small animals and sometimes even a cow; laundry washing and drying; candle manufactory; work yards  ̶  if a shop such as a boatbuilding shop, carpentry shop or some other small shop was located on a house lot; play yard; schoolyard; fish drying yard; etc.  The list goes on.

Each neighborhood on island functioned as a small village with coopers, cobblers, blacksmiths, boat or carpentry shop, shops in houses run by women out of their front sitting rooms, small factories – if you lived on Gay Street you had a straw works at the top of the street! – it was a cacophony of sounds and smells!

And so it brings me to this image.  A house on Main Street was recently renovated and a small garage – that likely was an old carriage house at the rear of the yard – was removed.  What it did was open a view shed to the back of the Maria Mitchell Observatory that was never this exposed ever before.  You could see a piece of the dome at a glimpse over the old carriage house but not like this ever – the MMO was built in 1908.  Interesting how now, that view from Howard onto Main, has been altered.


William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

My whole life has been a struggle, subjecting thy patient mother to much endurance.

–  William Mitchell in his autobiography, 1868

Born to longtime Nantucket Quaker families, William Mitchell (1791 – 1869) and Lydia Coleman (1792 – 1861) first met as young teenagers.  William was sent by his father to Lydia’s home to retrieve pumpkin seeds brought back from Patagonia by Lydia’s father, Captain Coleman who would be lost at sea soon after this meeting.  In the words of William Mitchell in his autobiography – written at the insistence of daughter Phebe Mitchell Kendall – it was love at first sight and it was his love for Lydia – starting when he was 14 and she was 13 – that kept him from attending Harvard College.  The paths were prepared for his application but he could not follow through and leave Lydia behind.  Instead, he would join his father in his whale oil and soap business which, with the War of 1812, quickly put the island into an economic freeze, especially with the halt that came to whaling.  The two married in December 1812, and like many newlyweds and islanders confronted with the war at their shores, they struggled financially.  The newlyweds eked out a living in Siasconset, where William farmed and Lydia ran a small library in this fishing village at the eastern end of the island.

In his autobiography, William compiled a list of all his occupations, which included: schoolteacher, state senator, soap boiler, cooper, schoolmaster, farmer, surveyor, chronometer rater, and astronomical observer for the United States Coast Survey.  William appeared to be most fond of teaching and astronomy – perhaps not just because he was from a sea-going family and community that relied on celestial navigation to travel – but also because he was close to his much older cousin, Walter Folger Jr., the renowned scientist and island clock and telescope maker.  William would also serve as the Pacific National Bank’s cashier – essentially being in charge of the entire bank – from 1836 until 1861.

Of her mother, Maria Mitchell once wrote that she never saw her sit with a book when the children were young.  With ten in all, she likely had no time.  But it was Lydia who examined every book they brought into the house, looked out for their educations, and knew, as one daughter wrote, their “every fault and every merit.”  Quite, dignified, and a woman of strong character, she played the foil to William’s gregarious and fun-loving behavior.  According to the same daughter, Lydia was, “honest almost to an extreme, and perfectly self-controlled.”