Special Birthday Speaker: J. Drew Lanham August 22

Image result for j drew lanham

On August 22,  we will be co-hosting J. Drew Lanham with the Nantucket Atheneum.  Professor Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature as well as numerous articles, poetry, and research papers in peer reviewed journals.  He is the Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology in the Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department at Clemson University.  He will be speaking about his work in songbird ecology and his perspectives on the role of African Americans in natural resource conservation.  His book is a must-read!  His lecture will be FREE and run from 7-8PM.  A book signing will follow.  http://www.clemson.edu/cafls/faculty_staff/profiles/lanhamj

Please join us and celebrate Maria Mitchell’s 200th!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1881. Sunday, June 12. The eclipse at one o’clock this morning was beautiful.  It had rained for a week and cleared off last evening . . . . I got out a little before 1 a.m. and went to bed at 2 {a.m.}.  Roses are plenty.

This was not a solar eclipse as Maria would observe in 1831 (Nantucket at age 12 ½), Burlington, Iowa (1869), or Denver, Colorado (1878), but a lunar eclipse (note the time of day) viewed from the observatory at Vassar.  School was still in session – yes, colleges did not get out in May – and her well-received and highly-anticipated Dome Party for the year would follow just six days later.  This seems to have been a solitary observation – though two of her nieces via her youngest sister, Kate, may have at least been present in the Observatory as they had come a few days before to stay.

What I love even more is her note about the roses being in bloom.  A naturalist as well, Maria’s journals are always at least peppered – if not written to great depth – with notations about things in nature.  And June, is the time for roses!


And please do not forget to join us this Wednesday, June 27 from 7-8 PM for a lecture and book signing at the Nantucket Atheneum with David Baron author of American Eclipse – a book in which Maria Mitchell is one of the featured astronomers.  Baron drew on Mitchell’s papers housed here on island at the MMA to research and write his book. 

Looking Good at 200


Every year is a special and important year at the MMA.  But this year, even more so.  Maria Mitchell turns 200!

We will be hosting an extensive array of activities from special lectures to a bigger birthday, a symposium, pop-up science events around Town, and a whole host of other activities.  I will post about them periodically but to get you excited, take a listen to the radio segment of the MMA’s Executive Director, David Gagnon, and myself – recorded March 21, 2018.  And check out the website and our calendar for all of the events.  Next up, the MMA’s astronomer, Regina Jorgenson, Ph.D., will present a four-part lecture series on the planets at the Nantucket Atheneum – and its free!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov. 24, 1854.  Yesterday, James Freeman Clarke the biographer of Margaret Fuller came in to the Atheneum.  It was plain that he came to see me and not the Institution.  I was a good deal embarrassed and made such an effort to appear as if I wasn’t, that I was almost ready to burst into a laugh at my own ridiculousness.

Maria, as was her way, always assumed that she was not important.  She did not believe she was important.  That people would not care about her work or who she was.  Very Quaker.  Very Maria.  She was certainly not full of herself that is for sure.  But people did seek her out while she was librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum.  By the time of Clarke’s arrival, her comet discovery was old news” but her fame was not – that would continue on well beyond her lifetime as we all know.  Her fame faded to some degree but well into the early twentieth century she could still be considered a household name.  The fading has more to do with the place of women in history than Maria herself – women were buried.

It’s also important to note that the Nantucket Atheneum was not just a library but a place of learning for all beyond just books – as it still is today.  It helped to attracted literary stars, great thinkers, and other luminaries of the nineteenth century – yes, even this far out to sea – who came to lecture and speak and take part in conventions like the anti-slavery conventions.  The Quaker belief in education and life-long learning was something that influenced all parts of island life; certainly its library.



I have a MASSIVE sweet tooth.  I am frankly not too discerning either.  Chocolate is, of course, high on my list.  One year when I was young, Santa Claus brought my Dad a small antique wooden box with a lock in it.  It was FILLED with chocolate; in particular chocolate covered cherries, one of his most favorites, and Andes Mint Candies.  The thing is, my Dad didn’t lock the box . . . My Mom still to this day takes fiendish delight in roasting me over the fact that she caught me leaving their room with my mouth stuffed with chocolates – think chipmunk.  My Mom, “Jascin are you eating your Father’s chocolate?”  A maybe six or eight year old me, “No, Mommy.”  Think of that through the guise of chipmunk cheeks stuffed with chocolate that was also likely dribbling down my chin and out the corners of my mouth!

I definitely got the sweet tooth from my Dad – who got it from his grandfather also known as “Big Daddy” – a name my Dad gave him as a child.  I won’t get started on Mama Minnie, Big Daddy’s wife and my great-grandmother.  Yes, my Dad was from an Italian family in case you didn’t note my maiden name is Leonardo!  But, I digress.  My Dad and I would sometimes eat two desserts – you know an hour or so after the first one and at about 9PM.  He would say, “I think there is some nice gelato in the freezer.”  By that point, I was a woman in my 40s.

But I also think my sweet tooth – because I love pure sugar candy too like Smarties and my Dad did too – comes from my Other Other Nana (read great-great grandmother) who you see in this image.  She came from Germany in the late 1800s.  She spoke no English.  She married a young man also from Germany whom she met in New York City.  They were a town apart in Germany but never knew one another.  They had a family and lived in Brooklyn where she ran a candy and confectionery shop that you see her standing in front of – Weed’s Ice Cream – which also sold tobacco.  Go figure.  She stands out front – note the dirt road even in Brooklyn about 1900 or so – with my Other Nana (the girl with the messy hair – guess I inherited that as well), Helen, her sister, Elsie, and their brother, John, as well as the family dog.  Yes, we are still a dog family.  So, I come from a family that ran a sweets shop!  And later, my Other Nana would marry a man who was a pharmacist and what did you find in pharmacies in those days?  Candy and ice cream!

So, while genes play a role in my sweet tooth, I think pure illustration or demonstration does too.  My son, who is adopted, is already all about the ice cream after dinner like Big Daddy was.  He is discerning however so maybe we will be in good shape.  I would have loved to take him to the Sweet Shop here on island which is long gone – but he’s already been introduced to sitting at the pharmacy counter at Island Pharmacy and quick licking a cone from the Juice Bar!

You may ask, “Did Maria have a sweet tooth?”  I have not seen anything in her journals that would lead me to that conclusion though you also have to remember that those were quite a bit more few and far between – a real indulgence then.  Sweet shops and confectioners did pop up on the island; in fact there was a small one by the Atheneum but I believe later than when Maria was librarian there.  Now, next time, ask me about Maria and beer.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

January 22. {1855} Horace Greely, in an article in a recent number of the ‘Tribune,’ says that the fund left by Smithson is spent by the regents of that institution in publishing books which no publisher would undertake and which do no good to anybody.  Now in our little town of Nantucket, with our little Atheneum, those volumes are in constant demand . . .

Smithson of course refers to James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States in order to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  This sum was about a half a million dollars and came from a man who never even visited the United States.  No one knew of this gift so to this day no one knows why he chose to make such a gift.  Though the promotion of the sciences and sharing the knowledge of it with people I am sure was a part of it.

Nantucket was known as a community of life-long learners and the Atheneum the hive where much of that information could be disseminated from.  Almost thirty miles at sea, people were not completely starved for information but as many of us are familiar with, it used to (before the Internet especially) make information slow to reach us.  And reading and learning are yet another very nice way to pass the time on a quiet, solitary island so I am not surprised that Maria notes that those volumes flew off the shelves.  They opened a world that was vast and far away and brought them to our shores – just as they still can.


The Power in This Child’s Hand

Atheneum Card

In this child’s hand, he holds power. The power to unlock doors, worlds, and the universe. At age one, he got his first library card. A card that will unlock many doors for him throughout his life – those that are real, those that are imaginary, those that someday could be.

At this library, our Atheneum, Maria Mitchell was the first librarian. It saw the first anti-slavery convention on Nantucket. Its Great Hall and attendees witnessed Frederick Douglass’ first speech to a mixed race audience. Numerous other luminaries came before Douglass – from island-born Lucretia Coffin Mott to Emerson, Thoreau, and William Lloyd Garrison. It was a space filled with books that opened the door and the world to Nantucket’s daughters and sons – always thirsty for knowledge. It was a repository for fantastic finds from around the world brought back by island whalemen, travelers, visitors, coastal traders, merchant ships, and fishing vessels.

He may not remember when he got his library card since he is so young. I acquired mine a few years older but remember that day. I still have my paper Atheneum card from when I was a child and when the children’s room was down in the basement. People screw up their faces remembering that dank space – I remember the wonder it held – and the orange/red carpet and being closed if it flooded. But that didn’t stop me – we were there several times a week. I also still have my library card from the town I grew up in in Connecticut – another place we were always visiting. As the daughter of a former English teacher who is also a voracious reader, books have always been a part of my world and have let me escape to other places and learn about new things. Now, my son will know the wonder of a book – the wonder of a library – and the treasures it holds and the history the Nantucket Atheneum has witnessed as well.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

March 16, 1885. In February, 1831, I counted seconds for father, who observed the annular eclipse at Nantucket. I was twelve and a half years old. In 1885, fifty-four years later, I counted seconds for a class of students at Vassar; it was the same eclipse, but the sun was only about half-covered. Both days were perfectly clear and cold.

In the 1850s, this eclipse observation was “documented” post-eclipse by Herminia B. Dassel, an artist who had come to the island to paint Abram Quary, the last male Wampanoag on the island. One of the portraits is at the Atheneum, the other at the Nantucket Historical Association. The interesting thing about the Mitchell eclipse double portrait is that it is not Maria posed with her father but instead the youngest Mitchell sister, Kate (Eliza Katherine). Maria refused to sit for the portrait. The artist would take many liberties in her interpretation of the event, the equipment, and Kate’s appearance (she looks like her eighteen year old self, not twelve year old Maria, and is not dressed as a Quaker would be). William Mitchell and the artist were finally able to convince Maria to sit for a portrait. You will find this portrait on our website, the more recognized one of her peering through a telescope and dressed as a Quaker. Maria would become close to the artist, becoming the godmother of the artist’s daughter. Dassel would also paint a portrait of William Mitchell. We have a photograph of the portrait but sadly the portrait was lost within the family.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865{1854} Oct. 27. Last night I heard Josiah Quincy Jr. {president of Harvard College} lecture on the Mormons. It was the first lecture of the Atheneum course. I went to the first last winter and listened with contempt to Matthew Hale Smith {Unitarian minister}. I expected of a Quincy something very much above a Smith, but the distance between the two men, is not, after all, so very great.

Both lectures were anecdotal, if Quincy’s was more witty it was also more inelegant. It would have made a pleasant drawing room lecture but had not the dignity desirable in a Lyceum discourse, where it is presumable something will be taught. But the fault is not with Matthew Hale Smith nor with Jos. Quincy Jr. While the community is the same and the taste for lectures the same, and the lecture going people are no more enlightened, great men will come down to the level and small ones will struggle up to it . . .

This is most certainly Maria at her pointed and “no mincing of words” best. I think her words speak for themselves. She was disappointed, feeling she was to learn something but the speakers felt that they needed to reach their audience – these off-islanders, or “coofs,” did not know the audience they were dealing with on Nantucket obviously! Life-long and eager learners, who continued to educate themselves, the speakers did not realize just how savvy and well-educated these Nantucketers were. I would love to know if others in the audience felt the same as Maria.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellAugust 15, 1835


MARIA MITCHELL proposes to open a school

For Girls, on the 1st of next month, at the Franklin school house.

Instruction will be given in Reading, Writing, Spelling,

Geography, Grammar, History, Natural Philosophy,

Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra.

Terms, $3 per quarter. None admitted under six years of age.

The above advertisement appeared in the local paper on August 15, 1835. At the age of seventeen, Maria Mitchell, already known for her abilities, was opening a school and she likely attracted a large group of girls. Given what she proposed to teach and the many levels of girls who might attend, this illustrates her ambition and her early desires to promote women’s’ education. Supposedly, this school was located on Traders Lane, just off of Main Street and just a short walk from 1 Vestal Street where the family was still living before moving to the Pacific National Bank for William Mitchell’s position as cashier. Maria would only run this school for about a year. She closed it because she was offered a position as the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum for which she received sixty dollars “per annum.”