Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Feb. 18, 1854.  If I should make out a calendar by my feelings of fatigue, I should say there were six Saturdays in the week and one Sunday.

I sort of laugh when I read this – different century, same feeling.  Though in Maria Mitchell’s day, the only day of rest was Sunday – to some degree and depending on where you lived, what you did for a living, and your religion.  For Quakers, it was a day of rest.  Sometimes, people had half a day of rest on Sunday, if that.  Also at this time, Maria was caring for her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, an illness that would take a toll on the entire family – physically and emotionally but more so on Maria as her main caregiver.

JNLF

At Rest

Under a blanket of cold.

When the ground freezes and seems like stone or metal, I am always reminded of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter – a poem later turned into a hymn that is most commonly sung during the Advent season.  It was one of my Father’s favorites but he found it very sad.  I once saw it making him cry when I was a child.  The line in particular: “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”  I was again reminded of this today (January 30, 2019) as I was the other day, and many cold winter days.  The line pops into my head often in this season.

Today, as I took my lunchtime walk, I went past Old North Cemetery.  Everything was  peaceful – everyone asleep under the blanket of a cold, iron-like earth.  Windswept, quiet, grey.  Grey clouds moving along the horizon with peeks of blue.

The cemetery is sometimes referred to as the Gardner Burial Site – some of the earliest who were interred there were from the Gardner family and originally the site was a private family burial site for the family.  Appropriate, since West Chester Street is just a few steps away and the Gardner clan as half-shares (in the early settlement of Nantucket by Europeans) lived along West Chester as they lived farther afield from the full-shares who lived closer to Washing Pond in Sherburne.  The road is basically the oldest on Nantucket – leading from the original settlement at Sherburne into Town and the later settlement at Wesco – which is basically Town and which provided a better harbor.

Maria was, of course, related to people on both sides of the aisle so-to-speak.

JNLF

The Back Porch

I love this simple 1920s/1930s back porch.  It speaks to me of a simpler time but also a time in which even with a little addition, the remainder of the house is untouched – much of this house seems untouched.  It likely enters the kitchen.  It’s a place where you can come in, dust the snow of your shoulders, pound the snow off your shoes.  Take them off.  Hang your old plaid wool coat on the hook and maybe sit on the bench – if there is room for one – and pull off your boots before entering the warm kitchen.  In the kitchen, the potbelly stove still exists.  Now, a newer gas oven and stove exist in this kitchen but the potbelly still warms the space.  The table has an enamel top with a small red decoration along the edges that make it look like the top has a tablecloth on it.  The sink is a large, one basin square porcelain sink with built in porcelain drains on either side, at an angle, so water runs off of them.  Your mother washes her hair in the sink – every Friday evening in the winter and then dries it sitting in front of the pot belly, gently coming and toweling it dry.  She does the same to you.

On Nantucket, we have lost a lot of these little additions or warts as we call them.  Yes, its not original to the house but it shows the evolution of the house just like an outhouse and a scallop shack or shed or an early garage with a bi-fold door.  Outbuildings and warts are all important – it shows how the house was used and how the use of the house evolved as new inventions came to be and new ways of living developed.  It shows how we lived.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Jan. 1, 1855.I put some wires into my little transit this morning.  I dreaded it so much, when I found yesterday that it must be done, that it disturbed my sleep.  It was much easier than I expected. 

I have blogged later portions of this adventure before.  This is the earliest account in the line – I did it backwards.  Maria would try to fix the lines in her transit with her own hair, then her nephew’s hair, and finally found success in using spider webs – individual strands!  Talk about patience – but also ingenuity and need!  The transit was important to Maria’s work – transits are still used today including for surveying.  They are used to determine the relative position of objects and lines.  They are extremely precise instruments and are used to establish reference lines and provide readings of angles in precise measurements.  Until she made the repairs, some of her work would have come to a screeching halt.

JNLF

A Time Gone By

Do you know where this is?  It seems to have recently been repainted and “cleaned” up a bit which is too bad.  It used to be a little more loose in the past.  But I love coming across this – I always know when I’m getting close.  Sometimes, I do a little bit of hopping.  It speaks to me of an earlier, simpler time.  When children could play in the street with no fear.  When children were outdoors all the time and not indoors stuck to technology.  When afterschool and summer meant being outside all the time playing until it got dark and you were called to come in – even when I was little.  It speaks to me of Nantucket and the simple Nantucket I grew up with.  When I see this, it makes me happy.  Really.  It does.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

December 2nd. {1857}  I spent all of yesterday in seeing the outside of Paris.  First in a carriage, then on foot, then in carriage again: from ten in the morning till ten at night I was sightseeing.  It is really a magnificent city.  Edinburgh is picturesque but Paris is splendid.  The streets like the Champs Elysees and Rue Rivoli are beautiful now, and in summer must be charming . . . .

December 7th.  In Paris, you have room to look at things.  In London, you have not. . . . So at Versailles, you see the palace from the magnificent grounds as a whole.  A building in London is seen by corners.

I cannot help but laugh at that last line.  It makes me wonder what she would think of Boston – or even Nantucket – in 2018!  But she is right – some places you can still see everything – and a building as the architect envisioned – but not in many places any longer.

By this time, her charge – Prudence (Prudie) had been forced to return home due to her father going bankrupt by the Panic of 1857.  Maria would travel on alone – and with the Hawthorne family who have been mentioned in these blogs before.

JNLF

Women in Astronomy and the MMWISS

As you are aware, we held the first Maria Mitchell Women in Science Symposium on October 5 and 6 this year.  We had over 140 people in attendance – a sold out meeting!  Three of the attendees have just written a compilation of their impressions on the MMWISS which you can find here:

https://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/2018/11/the-maria-mitchell-women-in-science.html

I would like to thank them for attending and for their thoughts.  Here’s to 2020!

JNLF

What Miss Mitchell Saw

At the close of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Symposium, I found a surprise left for me.  It was the item you see in this image.  It shows what is supposed to be the night sky on the eve of Maria Mitchell’s discovery of her telescopic comet on October 1, 1847.  It was given to me by someone who I have to come to know over the years for her love of Maria Mitchell and her work to complete a picture book about Maria – What Miss Mitchell Saw – to be published in Spring 2019.  I am VERY excited about the book – the author has included so much about Maria and Nantucket – including Nantucket’s amazing female population! – and I thank her for it.

I have provided a link below to Hayley Barrett’s website – the author.  If you go to the illustrator’s website – the link is provided on Hayley’s website – you will find her Instagram account and some images that will be included in the book!  It is very exciting.

Thank you so much, Hayley!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

November 1. {1857} There was, as there is very commonly in English society, some dresses too low for my taste, and the wine drinking was universal so that I had to make a special point of getting a glass of water and was afraid I might drink all there was on the table.  I think no one but Prudie and myself took a drop.  The servants stood in array just outside of the dining room door as we entered all in livery . . . Before the dessert came on, saucers were placed before each guest and a little rose water dipped from a silver basin into them, and then each guest washed his face . . . The gentleman next me Prof. {Robert} Willis, told me that it was a custom peculiar to Cambridge and dating from its earliest times.

Maria Was at Trinity College, Cambridge at the Master’s Lodge for dinner.  She was surrounded by numerous professors of the college and also some of her newly made English scientific friends such as the Airys.  Prudie (Prudence Swift) was the young woman Maria was chaperoning on a trip through Europe.

Her distaste for wine and low cut dresses was not just hers – it was also her American and Quaker upbringing.  While she would leave Quaker meeting long before this European trip – she left Quaker meeting in her early 20s as did all the Mitchell siblings – she maintained her Quaker lifestyle until her death.  Note too where her humor comes through a bit – by poking fun at the washing at the table.  Not the fingers mind you, the entire face.

JNLF