What’s New in Mitchell House? Peleg Jr.’s China!

We have some new artifacts over here at the Mitchell House! We recently acquired Peleg Mitchell Junior’s (Maria Mitchell’s uncle) blue and white Ridgway china set as a generous gift from his descendants. All in all, there are thirty-seven pieces in this set and they have gone on quite the journey!

Based on their color and pattern, we believe the china dates to around the 1830s. According to the family, the china originally belonged to Mary Ann Whippey, who was Peleg Mitchell Jr’s first wife. The china stayed with the Mitchell family, even after Mary’s death in 1836. In fact, the china came to the Mitchell House in 1837 when Maria’s father sold the house to his youngest brother, Peleg Jr, so Maria’s family could move to the apartment above the Pacific Bank. Peleg Jr had recently married again to another Mary (just to keep things confusing), known by the full name of Mary Swain Russell. After Peleg Jr died, Mary Russell still spent the summers here on Nantucket, but the rest of the year she spent time in Philadelphia visiting her daughter, Lydia. At some point, the china made its way down to Philly and later to Gladwyne, PA, with Lydia’s daughter (Mary and Peleg Jr’s granddaughter). The china continued moving with the family’s descendants, some of it going to Delaware and the rest of it taking a trip to Vermont. Now, it’s all back together at its original home – the Mitchell House!

The china we have is the Asiatic Palaces pattern, which was produced by Ridgway Potteries. In the full image, you can see a scene that takes place along a river, with the focus on two people standing by an ornate gate and a large pagoda. In the background, there is a bridge, a boat, and some other pagoda-style buildings along the riverbank.

But if you look closely at our set, you might notice that the small ladle and one of the plates have a different blue and white pattern, as if trying to blend in with the rest. The plate still says Asiatic Palaces on the bottom, but instead of focusing on the people by the pagoda, this plate’s scene is a close-up of the bridge and the boat. The small ladle, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Asiatic Palaces and is actually a completely different pattern! Though still blue and white, this ladle has an image of a windmill. According to the family, this ladle has been used with the rest of this set for as long as they can remember!

Now, in addition to these two pieces with totally different designs, if you look reaaaally closely at the rest of the set, you might notice that the pagodas are different shapes and the people are wearing different clothing or standing in different places from piece to piece. This seems a bit unusual for transfer-ware, which is not hand-painted and is usually mass-produced.

You might also be wondering why there is a ruler in the pictures of the up-close china. That’s because these are the photos we took to put into our records as we process and accession each item. These pictures provide a great opportunity for you to catch a glimpse into what we’re working on behind-the-scenes at Mitchell House!

Stop by to check out this china set on display in the Mitchell House pantry!

Kelly Bernatzky, Mitchell House Intern 2018, Vassar College 2019


My Visitors

Grape Arbor Sans Grapes or Leaves

It’s cold again.

Last week, I began to put the Mitchell House garden to bed.  With no frost yet though, the morning glories and nasturtiums are still going.  I didn’t have the heart to rip them out so I will let the frost get them and then, I will pull them out.

The rest of the MMA landscape is tended to by our wonderful landscaper and his crew who has been working for the MMA for over thirty years, Greg Maskell.  I believe we are the recipients of some generously discounted work at times.  Recently, Greg just put in a dry well and re-graded the area to the south of Hinchman to help us with our drainage issues.  I also asked him to put some gravel down in that work area – the old driveway – and it looks so much better and will be much nicer for the Natural Science Department to work over there – instead of working in mud!

One thing Greg and his crew did yesterday was cut back Peleg Mitchell’s grapes on the arbor at Mitchell House.  Always sad – and I fear another cold winter that might damage even more than last winter.  But now, its stark once again with just the close cut vines and no more straggling- hanging on-not yet fallen-or-eaten off grapes.  (This year the grapes were super sweet!).  The grapes have been a boon to a male cardinal who has been on them for weeks now.  I was upset to see him this morning though – and he was upset to see the grapes were gone.  I feel badly for him – those were nice meals he was having!

But, the cutting of the grapes did yield two more visitors today!  A Downy woodpecker and a White-breasted nuthatch were hopping around on the vines searching out a little sap and most definitely some bugs.  Such stark contrasts in color compared to the cardinal – all blacks, whites and greys save for the downy’s little red tuft on the back of his head.

So, I guess fall is here.  I finally had to drag out my heater since I have no heat over here at Mitchell House!  Brrr!


A Simple Coat Peg Tells a Story of Nantucket’s Tinsmith

Peleg's coat peg

This was previously published in Yesterday’s Island this summer and on my Nantucket Chronicle column, “The Nation of Nantucket.” If you keep up with “Maria Mitchell’s Attic,” then you should know who Peleg Mitchell Junior is!

It’s small, oddly shaped, has a screw-like quality at one end and a rounded nub at the other, and has a red and white gummed label adhered to it. People often ask, “What is that?” as they peer into the case to see some of the smaller items in the Mitchell House collection.

“That, is Peleg Mitchell’s coat peg,” we answer. Who is Peleg Mitchell and why do we have his coat peg? Peleg Mitchell Jr, like Maria Mitchell herself, was the youngest of ten children born to Peleg Mitchell Sr and his wife, Lydia Cartwright Mitchell in 1802. Peleg Mitchell Jr (Peleg) lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria Mitchell’s family moved to the Pacific National Bank when she was 18. Her father, as bank cashier, was in charge of the entire bank and housing above the bank came with the position. Thus, when they moved out, William sold the home at 1 Vestal to his youngest sibling, Peleg; the MMA has the original bill of sale.

Peleg was a tinsmith. In fact, he and his partner James Austin were the only tinsmiths practicing at the time so they had a very busy shop. Think of tinware, in part, as the Tupperware of the time – tin was used for all sorts of things – lanterns, candleholders, food containers, colanders, graters, lanterns, boxes . . . it was fairly cheap, easy to fabricate quickly, and just plain ubiquitous. Peleg was a leader within the Friends (Quaker) meeting and with the schisms that occurred in the faith, he would become a Wilburite while his older brother William would become a Gurneyite. As a leader within the meeting, Peleg also hosted some smaller meetings at the house at 1 Vestal Street in the front sitting room. One of his (probably) many tinsmithing apprentices was one of his nephews, William Forster Mitchell, Maria’s younger brother. This tinsmithing background would help – in part – Forster (as he was referred to) assist in the founding of the Industrial Arts Department at Howard College – Howard University today – in Washington, DC. He and his Uncle Peleg must have been close after this apprenticeship as they also corresponded quite a bit when Forester was the superintendent of Haverford College. Their letters can be found in the Haverford archives – it was founded as a Quaker school.

Back to the coat peg. It is small object – but one of many that the MMA has in its collection at the Mitchell House that belonged to the family. Made of whalebone, it likely screwed into a panel somewhere in the house that was strapped to the plaster – serving as a special coat hook just for Peleg. The large gummed label was unfortunately but likely done in the early part of the twentieth century so that it wasn’t misplaced or someone in the family did not forget what it was and to whom it belonged. In any case, it was cataloged as part of the collection in the 1950s. The donor is unknown which may mean that it drifted about the 1 Vestal Street house a bit; the house became a museum in 1903 coming to the MMA directly from the family so anything that was in the house from Peleg’s and his wife’s time in it simply remained. I have a feeling this might have been still in its place in the wall into the 1950s before someone chose to remove it for safekeeping maybe while some conservation work was being done or so that someone didn’t paint over it or forget what it was and to whom it belonged.


Chamber Pot?

Chamber Pot Shards?This spring, thanks to a generous grant, we were able to replace the cedar board fence behind the Mitchell House that was in long need of replacement. It was likely from the late 1960s and did its part for a very long time. Part of the area where this fence runs was once the home of “Neighbor North” as the Peleg Mitchell Junior family called it. Neighbor North was the Mitchell family outhouse and was located in the north part of the backyard. Mary Mitchell, wife of Peleg Jr, surrounded it with nasturtiums in summer and Peleg himself planted a grape vine that grew over it (I mentioned this is a previous post).

As with any digging in the Mitchell House yard, or even a hard rain, pottery shards are often revealed and as you might know from another previous post, I love pottery shards. As you can see in this image, there is an overwhelming amount of one design of pottery and we can assume it is all from the same piece. Since it is in the area of Neighbor North, I believe this may be the remains of a chamber pot that was brought in the morning to be emptied in the outhouse but never made it back into the Mitchell House because it was dropped or accidentally shattered during the process of emptying. These are the white, blue, and brown striped shards. I have also found a straight, thick piece that could be a portion of the handle of a chamber pot. You can see other pieces too in this image. They could be chips from other chamber pots that were damaged in their emptying process or were discarded in the outhouse hole when broken. Or, simply, other pottery pieces that were tossed behind the outhouse when they were damaged beyond use or could not be made into a “make-do.” What’s a “make-do” you ask? Now that is for another blog. But keep this in mind, even the simplest and smallest piece of “trash” can tell you something about the people who came before us and what the site it is found in was used for or even the economic status of a family. A little piece of trash can be another woman’s treasure – in many ways, including knowledge!



Toys blog

The plastic orange duck you see here is approximately forty-one years old. Yes, I just gave away my age. That plastic duck, made in Germany and speaking very much of the age it was created in both design and color, was mine. Then, it was my brother’s. Then, it was used by my dolls, including my beloved Rub-a-Dub (she could go in the tub! And my Rub-a-Dub had a curl on the top of her washable hair – not many did). Then, that same duck was used by my niece and nephew when they were babies and spending time with Nana and Grandpa. And now?  Well, now it is just about my son’s favorite baby toy. Who would have thought? It is a rattle as well – it has a small bead or two inside and it makes a very soft but pleasant sound. It also gives him some places to rub his itchy gums on – he is teething in a most serious manner . . . we still await teeth after at least two months of teething.

Toys have not changed too much since Maria’s day. Yes, there are entirely too many, they are unfortunately heavily made of plastic, they are brightly colored. But, there were rattles and teethers, dolls and stuffed animals, tea sets and dollhouses, toy soldiers and tin horses. Granted, Quaker toys were far simpler than toys of non-Quakers but they all had a purpose for life stages of infants and children, helping them advance, to get through teething, to remain quiet at meeting or while mother was busy, and teaching children how to be proper adults. Well, my duck did not help me to be a proper adult but it did occupy me quietly for a time as it now does my son and provided me with something to chew upon.

Mitchell House has a small but wonderful assortment of mid to late nineteenth century toys. Once piece in the collection is this tin horse made by Peleg Mitchell Jr’s tinsmith partner, James Austin, for his grandchildren. Its tin tail may have at one time had a small amount of real horse hair tufting from it and it was also likely attached to a larger stand. I will tell you that one wrong move with it and a child would have quickly found out what sharp meant! Its tin mane has a “nice” edge to it that could still make a slice of a delicate hand. So toys taught a little more than some of our toys do today. Child safety was not the same obviously but a child then quickly learned a little respect and caution – not that I condone that way of thinking! We have come a long way, no? And just think, when you see the cradle in the birth room at the Mitchell House, rocking a baby was not the soothing gentle act we all think about when we see one. Women rocked those babies in the 18th century and earlier; hard. Babies were not necessarily soothed to sleep. After a mother’s rocking, they were probably semi-conscious or on their way to nausea and dizziness that forced them to quiet down and possibly fall asleep. Ugh!

Tin Horse


The Grapes of Wrath?

Grapes 2014

At moments, I have a small choice word or two as I drag yet another squished grape into the cottage on the bottom of my foot. And then I think to myself, “It’s September at the Mitchell House!”

Peleg Mitchell Junior, Maria Mitchell’s uncle and the owner of 1 Vestal Street from 1836 until 1882 (his wife, Mary, continued to own the House until 1902 when she passed away) planted a grape arbor at the rear of Mitchell House. The grape plant continues to thrive to this day; in fact it is protected in the preservation easement on the Mitchell House. The original supports are long gone, but Peleg’s grapes continue on a new arbor. This year we have a bumper crop with no mold or any issues with the fruit it seems. Concord grapes, they start off sweet and then turn sour – an acquired taste. Some people like to eat the little tendrils that allow the grapes to climb, claiming they have a lemony flavor though I don’t taste that. The birds, in particular the catbirds, are made happy, especially with this year’s crop. When Peleg lived here they also had Isabella grapes climbing over the woodshed but unfortunately that structure and Neighbor North (the outhouse) are long gone.

In Two Steps Down, Alice Albertson Shurrocks’s book about the Mitchell House, her grandfather was Peleg, she writes that the Concord grape arbor, “stood opposite to the cookroom at the edge of the sunny slope, leading from the upper grass plot to the lower . . . and I could look down on the vine from my bedroom.” She would spend her summers at 1 Vestal. The slope is long gone, replaced by a small retaining wall in the 1930s when the Curator’s Cottage was added at the rear of the House but it is still sunny.

Mrs. Shurrocks was married to Alfred Shurrocks, a well-respected architect who designed the Wing of the MMA Science Library. Mrs. Shurrocks was one of the curators of the MMA. They lived at 16 Vestal Street. In the next few weeks, I will give you an update on the conservation work there. The mason is just beginning!



Sunlight on the floor of the Maria Mitchell House Kitchen Sunlight on the floor of the Maria Mitchell House KitchenA few weeks ago as I was vacuuming the Birth Room in preparations for closing the Mitchell House for the winter (always a depressing thing to do!), I turned and looked back into the 1825 Kitchen to see the sun streaming through the windows and casting its light and shadows across the floor. Simple. Beautiful. I thought about how this pattern of sun and shadow across the floor is something that has played out since the kitchen was built by William in 1825. Lydia, William, Maria and all of her siblings saw that same light and the shadows of the sashes and mullions that I was looking at for the thousandth time as well. That has not changed – for over 187 years. Wow!

I also thought about how lucky Lydia and the Mitchell’s were to have a kitchen so filled with lovely afternoon sun. In the summer that made it a bit too warm especially with the fire going for cooking, but in the winter and during cool fall and spring days, that afternoon sun was a help for lighting and warmth.

Now not much has changed in the Mitchell House since it was built in 1790 and we also have many of the family pieces owned by the William and Peleg (William’s youngest brother who later owned 1 Vestal Street) Mitchell families, as well as Maria. But something so simple as the sun – and it remains the same. I think it is important to remember that we are just the caretakers of a home or building – even if it is our personal home. Owners of a home will come and go but the building will remain for generations and it is our privilege to live or take care of that building or home and our responsibility to preserve and protect it for the future so that someday, say in a hundred years, someone else will look upon a moulding, a fireplace surround, a riser, or even the sun coming through the window and know that someone else admired that one hundred, two hundred, three hundred or more years ago and that it has not changed. It connects you even more to the past and the people who inhabit the past.

Ah, To Be In the Third Grade!

Ah, to be in the third grade again! And, I have. In November and again this spring, I have been spending some time with the four Nantucket Elementary School (NES) third grade classes working in the fall on Wampanoag legends and again this spring helping the children to learn about Maria Mitchell and what life was like in her time. We have read stories and discussed them, looked at artifacts from the Mitchell House trying to figure out what some of them might be – oh, the ideas of a third grader! – and created some fun crafts that reinforce what we learn as a group. After a discussion of Maria Mitchell’s and her father’s role in whaling, we talk about how far the whalers traveled from Nantucket, how they navigated (William and Maria rated their chronometers), and their stops during the voyages that allowed them to bring back some really interesting souvenirs – including sailors’ valentines. Children then make their own valentines for a loved one.

When we delve deeper into life in the nineteenth century, we compare our time to that of Maria’s and sometimes it takes a bit of a discussion to get to the lack of electricity! Our craft: we create tin lanterns with candles – something that Maria’s Uncle Peleg Mitchell Junior once did – he was a tinsmith. We have a lot of fun punching the “tin” and sometimes I get my fingers whacked a bit as I hold the punch for them to hammer in the holes. You should see their expressions and hear their apologies when this happens – they are so very sweet (and a bit mortified and worried!). But it brings us together, and for the few for who English is their second language, we find some unique ways to talk about what we are doing – and for me to warn them to watch my fingers!

This is our second year of the program. It is a way for me to bring the Mitchell House to them because we cannot fit twenty-five third graders in the Mitchell House at once – let alone the 100 who comprise this year’s third grade. And this year, we were funded by the Community Foundation for Nantucket – and we owe them yet another big thank you! I hope to continue this program with the NES for many years. It is a great way for them to learn about Maria Mitchell and life in the nineteenth century, as well as the place of women in America and Nantucket for that matter, but also for them to get to know someone else in their community.