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?