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!


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.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellFeb. 5, 1882. We have had two heavy snow storms since Feb. came in. We have twice been unable to get out of the Observatory without help. The first time 6 men, two horses and a girl came to our rescue; today four men and two horses and a girl came.

Phebe’s picture, painted by Fanny came; it is far the most pleasing she has done.

In 1882, Maria Mitchell had been teaching at Vassar College for approximately seventeen years. At that point, the Vassar Observatory was fairly remotely located in relation to Main Building where all of the college’s activities took place. One can image how hard it was for Maria to get out of the Observatory, but also how hard it was for her “girls” to get to her.

This entry is one of those gems I come across. Actually, there are many gems. For many, many years before I was curator, there was a portrait stowed away and the inventory was listed as “Unknown Woman.” Finally one day, as I was again looking at it trying to figure out who she was, I realized it was Phebe Mitchell Kendall, one of Maria’s younger sisters! Now, I come across this in Maria’s journals and it really makes me wonder if this oil portrait was painted by Frances (Fanny) Mitchell Macy, the daughter of Anne Mitchell Macy and her husband Alfred Macy. Fanny was an accomplished artist, maybe taking after her accomplished artist aunt, Phebe. I don’t recall any artist’s signature on the painting, but this could be one in the same! I am very excited to investigate further!


What Is This?

kaleidoscopeWhat you are looking at is a camera shot looking into a kaleidoscope in the collection of the Mitchell House. This one was made by G. C. Bush and Company of Providence, Rhode Island circa 1870. It did not belong to the Mitchells, though most pieces in the Mitchell House did. Kaleidoscopes came about in the early nineteenth century as a way of studying the polarization of light but became copied for use as a toy likely because of the brilliant colors and quiet entertainment they afforded. I think they may have been more Quaker-acceptable too – there were bright colors but they were hidden inside.

According to Phebe Mitchell Kendall, in her book, Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals (1896 Lee and Shepard), their father, William, suspended a glass ball filled with water from the center of the family’s sitting room ceiling. It was used for his studies on the polarization of light and flashed “Its dancing rainbows about the room.” I suspect that this Quaker man, a lover of bright colors not allowed by his religion, also used it as a way to introduce color into their somber Quaker world. He chose books with red covers and painted his telescope supports bright red – his favorite color. I am sure he came up with a way to explain away all of this – especially the telescope supports – maybe to see them better in the dark night as he observed? In any case, if they could have afforded one, I am sure they would have had a kaleidoscope – unless the glass bowl sufficed. But I am sure that early on, kaleidoscopes were found in many a scientific home, and later as they were developed as toys, found in even more homes. Who knows if people were aware of their original intention – and how many today realize that they were first developed for scientific use?