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.”

 

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1880, Feb. 16.  I sent a note to Mr. Swan this morning to ask about the power that I may have to vote for school officers and the ask where I must register, what tax I must pay, etc.  I also suggested to Dr. Webster to write to another of our Trustees.  They may rule us out as citizens but we have lived for years within the precincts of some town. . .  It is possible that we must hold real estate in the town, but I know that my Father voted although he did not even pay a poll tax.

Here, Maria is likely referring to a Vassar College trustee and also an attorney, who served as the attorney and legal adviser to Matthew Vassar.  But what is of most interest is that Maria is trying to figure out how she might vote – not for Vassar College officers, but Poughkeepsie school board members.  (Dr. Webster was then Vassar’s resident physician, having replaced Dr. Alida Avery.)  This journal entry followed upon the heels of Maria’s younger sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, being voted in as the first woman to serve on the Cambridge Massachusetts School Board along with another woman, Sarah P. Jacobs, in December 1879.  It was the first time that women were allowed to vote for a political office in Cambridge and the two were the first women to hold any office in Cambridge.  In fact, women were allowed to vote for school board members throughout Massachusetts – think about how that came about.  Maria seized on this accomplishment of her sister’s and the fact that women could vote for school boards in Massachusetts, hoping to make some changes in New York – or at least Poughkeepsie.  She also likely felt that this would help to support not just education but girls and women in education and further, women’s higher education i.e. college.

JNLF   

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1873, July 21 Cambridge.  We took an exceedingly hot day for a visit to      Cambridge. . . . Cambridge is beautiful – but it has no trees except those in parks . . . One thing is certain, Girton College has sat itself down before the University of Cambridge in siege and the little woman Miss Davies has obtained a quiet power that is very effective . . .

This second European trip, Maria made in the summer of 19873 with her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall, her husband Joshua, and their son William Mitchell Kendall. Girton was the first residential college for women in the United Kingdom and had opened just about four years before Maria visited.  Davies was its founder.  But coming from the second oldest women’s college in the United States, and with her lifelong push for women in education and also women’s equality, this was a must on her return trip to Europe.  What I like best about her comment is that of Girton being plopped right in front of Cambridge as if thumbing – or perhaps really thumbing – its nose at a centuries old institution where only men could be educated.  Cambridge did not formally allow women to receive degrees until 1947.  By her comments, it seems to have pleased MM as well.

For more about Girton College, visit: https://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/girtons-past

And – make sure you stop by the MMA tomorrow from 1-4PM where we will be celebrating Maria Mitchell’s 199th Birthday (and yes, we are gearing up for number 200!) with activities, period inspired music, a falconry demonstration, activities, and refreshments!  All of our properties will be open for FREE.  Everyone is welcome!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Steamer Castalia. Sept. 12 {1873}. We are on the 13th day of our passage and only today am I able to write. The passage has not been bad but the pitchy motion which the head winds gave is very sickening and I was scarcely able to move for 7 days. Certainly for 3 days I was violently sick if I moved. And the worst sickness was the giddiness of the 8th and 9th days when if I moved, I was faint, or, my sight failed and things dimmed for a few minutes.
I did not walk across the deck for 10 days, although I crawled up nearly every day . . .

And this was how, Maria Mitchell’s second trip to Europe in 1873 ended. Seasick. She had spent three months in England and Russia, gaining access to the Observatory at Pulkova. She had travelled with her nephew, William Mitchell Kendall, and at times her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall and her husband, Joshua. You may have read the hysterically funny piece about Maria becoming locked in the train bathroom that I recently posted – this was part of that same trip. No matter where you are raised, even on an island, it doesn’t mean you won’t get seasick! And while this passage doesn’t detail astronomy or Vassar or women’s rights or women and education, I think it shows that Maria – or MM as she referred to herself and signed letters to family and close friends – was just as human as everyone else – even if she was America’s first woman astronomer!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

1881, June 6
I have been clearing up drawers. A sad business when it comes to burning letters or not burning, of those who have passed away . . .

After the Great Fire of 1846 that destroyed much of the lower core district of the Town of Nantucket, including the all-important wharves, Maria Mitchell destroyed many of her private papers after witnessing those of others blowing about the Town laying bare their most intimate feelings and words. For us, it is most unfortunate. I am sure burning happened quite a bit with private papers that no one wished to keep but when I read Maria’s own words about burning letters and papers I always wish she had not! Some of the things she may not have thought appropriate for others to read would likely not be inappropriate in our eyes today. But as she notes, it was also a hard process – especially when those letters served as the tangible memory of someone lost – the actual paper, their words, their writing that was still on the page even though they were no longer of the Earth. Her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall to whom Maria left her personal papers and which Phebe compiled into a book, additionally did a good job of destroying things she felt were not appropriate for others to read. She bladed out pages from Maria’s journals, pasted pages together so that if pulled apart (even by a conservator) all the words would be obliterated, or she crossed out passages with ink. She developed a very good hatching system with her pen and ink! You cannot make out one word! It is infuriating but they both accomplished their goal, that’s for sure!
JNLF

Answer To Do You Know Where This Is?

Image

The image is a portion of the face of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Built by John Deverell in Boston in 1789, the clock was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William Mitchell’s father, Peleg Sr. William and Lydia were married on December 12, 1812 or as Quakers would write it the 12th day of the 12th month 1812. It is a heavy brass works clock that shows the phases of the moons (it rotates with the clock) and the date – useful for a family of astronomers! William and Lydia gave the clock to Phebe Mitchell Kendall, a younger sister of Maria, when she married Joshua Kendall. Phebe then left the clock to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. Willie, as he was called by the family, left it to the Mitchell House in his estate in the 1940s. It still works – I wind it twice per week!
JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

July 29 {1873}. En route to St. Petersburg and we are told that we keep this car right through. We have sleeping car thus. The lady’s toilette is round and into that the Conductor locked me this morning . . . . I found I could open the window and get air and there was a very comfortable arm chair, but I was distressed about Willie who could not know where I was.

After an hour I put my head out of the window just as Willie did the same. He was delighted as I was. When the next stopping place came the Conductor was at hand at once and let me out. Willie had been much alarmed . . . .

On her second trip to Europe in 1873, Maria traveled with her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Phebe’s husband, Joshua, and their son, William Mitchell Kendall – the family always referred to him as Willie. At one point, Maria and Willie struck out on their own, visiting the Observatory at Pulkova. I came across this amusing entry that I had not read before and laughed as I imagined Maria stuck in the bathroom – haven’t we all been there before – but also her sixteen or seventeen year old nephew panicked that his aunt was missing and in a foreign country and on a train to boot!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Dec 16, 1870

Alfred Stone,

I have a lecture on the Seven Stars of the Great Bear, which I shall be pleased to give before your “Union.” I shall probably be in Boston from Dec 22 to Jan 3d and can come down to Providence in that time, or (what I should prefer) stop at Providence on my way to Po’keepsie, and Lecture Wednesday evening Jan 4.  I have never spoken to an audience of more than 400, and am therefore glad that your hall is a small one.

My charge to a Lyceum is $50. I charge $20 to a school, and should be glad to make some engagements in schools in and around Providence.

Maria Mitchell

My address after Dec. 21 is 81 Inman St., Cambridgeport, Mass.

Alfred Stone, a prominent architect of Providence, Rhode Island invited Maria to speak. Stone was well-known and a founding partner of his architecture firm. He designed the Providence Public Library, buildings at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, as well as numerous private homes, in addition to quite a few other private and public buildings. Her Cambridgeport address for the school holidays was that of one of her younger sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who lived in Cambridgeport with her husband Joshua and son, William Mitchell Kendall – a young man who would become an architect with McKim, Mead, and White (see an earlier post for more on WMK). Phebe Mitchell Kendall, like Maria, was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, serving as the head of the Dress Reform Committee at one point; was the first woman to serve on Cambridge’s School Board; and was an artist of quite some talent, once opening an art school on Nantucket.

JNLF

Among Good Company

Capstone MMThe other day, a new biography about Maria Mitchell appeared at my door. Now this one is not for everyone . . . well, I guess it could be for everyone but it is really aimed at the pre-kindergarten to first grade set. If you are an adult, it will take you about two minutes tops to read! Since the publisher used several of our historic images, they are required to send us one free copy for the Archives. As you can see, Maria is in good company – a broad mix of women – and I am hoping that list grows!

We have had quite a few requests for image use this year – both for children’s books – although this one is the only one that is just about Maria and no one else – and for articles and adult history and science books. We have also had a few researchers using Maria Mitchell’s papers. They include a woman researching Henry David Thoreau’s time on Nantucket – he and Maria crossed paths a few times – and a man researching the eclipse of 1878. Maria travelled to Denver to observe the eclipse, taking along a few of her students and her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who recorded the event with sketches and watercolors. The Archives receives fees when photographs are used and if I complete transcriptions of the papers. This helps to support their conservation. So, I am expecting the Mitchell House mail to be a bit full over the next months as more publications arrive!

JNLF

Capstone MM 2

 

Answer to What Is This?

This is a small area of inlay that is found towards the bottom portion of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Made in Boston in 1789, the clock was built by John Deverell and was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William’s parents in December 1812 (or the twelfth month 1812 as they were Quakers). It was then given by them to one of Maria Mitchell’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who then left it to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. It came to the Mitchell House in the late 1940s from his estate. If you follow this blog, you may remember that I wrote a bit about Kendall – he was a senior architect with McKim, Mead, and White.

JNLF