Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

November 1. {1857} There was, as there is very commonly in English society, some dresses too low for my taste, and the wine drinking was universal so that I had to make a special point of getting a glass of water and was afraid I might drink all there was on the table.  I think no one but Prudie and myself took a drop.  The servants stood in array just outside of the dining room door as we entered all in livery . . . Before the dessert came on, saucers were placed before each guest and a little rose water dipped from a silver basin into them, and then each guest washed his face . . . The gentleman next me Prof. {Robert} Willis, told me that it was a custom peculiar to Cambridge and dating from its earliest times.

Maria Was at Trinity College, Cambridge at the Master’s Lodge for dinner.  She was surrounded by numerous professors of the college and also some of her newly made English scientific friends such as the Airys.  Prudie (Prudence Swift) was the young woman Maria was chaperoning on a trip through Europe.

Her distaste for wine and low cut dresses was not just hers – it was also her American and Quaker upbringing.  While she would leave Quaker meeting long before this European trip – she left Quaker meeting in her early 20s as did all the Mitchell siblings – she maintained her Quaker lifestyle until her death.  Note too where her humor comes through a bit – by poking fun at the washing at the table.  Not the fingers mind you, the entire face.

JNLF