It used to be that in schools children were asked to memorize significant portions of famous speeches, poems, plays, or other well-known written pieces. It seems that this is not as popular as it once was although I think it helped students on many levels – from memorization skills, to recitation, to public speaking, and more. My great-grandmother, even in her later years, remembered many of the pieces she had memorized, reciting them aloud to my mother to help her fall asleep. My mother remembers many of those herself, in part because of hearing them so often, but also because in high school and college, she also memorized many pieces. An English teacher, my mother always has a poem or a quote at her lips to respond to a situation or a word or phrase someone may mention. It is something of which I am envious – most of my teachers never had us memorize anything. One piece my mother learned from her grandmother is “The Barefoot Boy” (1855) by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892) so imagine my surprise – on a multitude of levels – when I came across what you see above.
In the MMA’s collection, we have John Greenleaf Whittier’s autograph, as well as letters he wrote to Maria Mitchell. What a surprise then to find this single rose inserted into a book of pressed seaweed created by Charlotte Coffin Mitchell (1823 – 1901), the wife of Maria Mitchell’s younger brother, William Forster Mitchell (1825 – 1892)! A treasure! I was so stunned to see a rose inserted in a book of seaweed and more stunned to see that Whittier gave it to Forster (in August 1880 – Forster’s birth month). Forster was named for the famed English Quaker who visited Nantucket around 1824. Like the Mitchells, Whittier was a Quaker and an ardent slaves’ rights supporter. Forster had for many years worked for the Freedman’s Aid Society, as had other Nantucketers including Anna Gardner (1816 – 1901) who went into the South to establish schools and teach the children of newly freed slaves. Forster also was the superintendent of the Quaker college, Haverford, and once the war was over he helped to establish the Industrial Arts program at Howard College, teaching the craft of tinsmithing which he had learned as an apprentice to his Uncle Peleg Mitchell, Junior.
While more research needs to be completed to understand the Whittier-William Forster connection, I think the rose itself illustrates a close connection. There was a great deal of overlap in whom Whittier knew and worked with and whom Forster and the Mitchell family knew and worked with. The Quaker connection is a step but also the anti-slavery connection. Nantucket also serves as a connection since Whittier, a descendant of Nantucket Coffins, wrote at least one poem about the island – “The Exiles” in 1841. Another research project to add to the list!