Living, Breathing

I think I have mentioned this before.  The ticking of the tall case clock in the Mitchell House, its ringing on the hour, always makes me feel like the Mitchell House is alive.  It is when I have to stop the clock for the winter that the House goes dormant.  It’s a sound that I become quite use to when it is running – the ticking and ringing.  It always makes me chuckle to myself when the Mitchell House intern first starts work in late May.  It takes them a few weeks to discern the difference between the clock and the front door bell but then, they get it.  (Don’t worry – I don’t let them “run” for the door – I tell them, “No!  It’s the clock.  You’ll get used to the difference.)

The tall case was a wedding gift from William Mitchell’s parents to William and Lydia on their wedding day.  Made in Boston by John Deverell in 1789, it’s a year older than the House.  William and Lydia gave the clock to Phebe Mitchell Kendall upon her marriage in 1854.  Phebe left t to her only child, William Mitchell Kendall who then left it to the Mitchell House in his estate in 1941.  I am not sure how William’s parents came to the clock – perhaps it was their clock as William and Lydia married in 1812 so by then the tall case (no, not called a grandfather clock!) was twenty-three years old.

On its face it rotates the phases of the Moon and shows the seconds and the date.  It’s a seven-day clock, but I wind it twice per week (always, holding my breath as it is 231 years old!)  It has wonderful inlays around the bonnet top and the case where the door to the pendulum and weights are located.  And its face is enameled.  It’s a simple – very appropriate for a Quaker family – tall case clock with just a touch of “extras” – a bit of color and a bit of decoration.

I put it to bed a few weeks ago – I wait pretty far into the fall as I hate to stop it.  But when I do, I tell it to have a good winter and that I will see it when I wake it in the spring.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Thursday July 17. {1873}  Mr. Airy’s.  I went to Greenwich and arrived about 11 a.m.  I had for years had misgivings about Mrs. Airy but had heard nothing.  When the servant said “Lady Airy is not yet up” I knew she must be ill . . . Sir George Airy came in and the welcome was so hearty!

And later I saw Mrs. Airy wheeled out in a chair, a wreck and a ruin!  And so tenderly cared for by all!  She had been so good to me 15 years since, and was so full of vigor, that I could have cried at the sight. 

She appeared to be very glad to see me, but said nothing, continuing to hold my hand and  smile . . . . Sir George Airy, as he is now, had improved with age and looks strong and vigorous . . . .

As I have noted before, after meeting the Airys – Sir George Airy being the Astronomer Royal of England – Maria kept up a lifelong correspondence with them.  In particular, she developed a lifelong correspondence with Richarda Airy until this illness which I will assume was likely a stroke (without researching).

Maria was in Europe for her second trip – so she did see Europe once again unlike her journal entry I posted for June 1858.  She travelled to Europe with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, and Phebe’s husband, Joshua, and their son, William Mitchell “Willie” Kendall.  This would be the trip that brought Maria to Russia and the Observatory at Pulkova.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March 12, {1855}.  What a change a fortnight has made.  I have passed through a fortnight of great anxiety in nursing my Mother.  I have never been a believer in a special Providence, but when I saw her recovering I felt like giving thanks to God and when anyone says to me “how is your mother,” I felt like saying “Better, thank God” instead of “thank you.”

Lydia Coleman Mitchell partially recovered from an illness that would last for six years and that made Maria Mitchell her mother’s nurse.  As the single daughter who lived at home, societal norms dictated this – though we all know that Maria would of course do this no matter what.  It was only her trip to the southern United States and Europe that would draw her away – with Lydia left under the attentive care of one of Maria’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who had married in 1854.  Such circumstances still exist today – as was just recently discussed on a local NPR piece.  While it’s not necessarily only the women carrying for aging parents or sick family members, it is still very much on families to take care of the seriously ill and aged – health care costs and costs associated with long-term care and nursing homes or retirement communities are out of reach for many.

As I have noted before, Maria did not believe in a god – she saw her god – her religion – in nature.  But she obviously felt there was some higher plane – some higher being – that could have had some sort of influence as her mother’s illness was not something she thought she would even partially recover from.  I realize my god is nature – the world around us – and I came to that in part because of my Father and his beliefs.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

January 3, 1867.  Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in 50 years.  He said one of the most conservative members of the Faculty had said within 16 days that it would come about within 10 years.  I asked him if I could go into one of Prof. Peirce’s recitations.  He said there was nothing to keep me out and that he would let me know when they came . . . .

The following Friday, Maria was there with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, and asked Peirce (I believe this is Benjamin Peirce she refers to) upon his arrival if she could attend.  He answered in the affirmative but Maria was apparently unhappy with the response saying to him, “Can not you say ‘I shall be happy to have you.’  He answered her in the way she expressed though she noted that he didn’t seem happy, possibly in part because he was in a state of “undress” – meaning likely not up to snuff for a Harvard professor presenting to his Harvard students.  Maria and Phebe took their seats, Maria apparently turned crimson (pun intended) when the male students arrived, and Peirce made several mistakes in his formulas.  She also noted that the room was “very common looking” – something that she noted would never be allowed at Vassar.


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.


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:

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!


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!


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!

Answer To Do You Know Where This Is?


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!