Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

1875, June 20.

A meeting of the Officers of Congress was called at the house of Mrs. Hanaford, 5 Summit Ave, Jersey City. The weather was intensely cold . . . It was a question who should preside. Mrs. Hanaford thought the Chairman of the Executive Committee should and I had been told that I should, etc. The question was settled by non-arrival of Chairman of Ex. Com . . . . I made many blunders, as I have never presided before, but I continued for 4 hours. We did a few good things . . . . The most serious question in my mind was the looseness in regard to membership . . . . I spoke for a tight rule in this respect, and begged for high-toned character in our papers, and for a very very high toned morality in our membership. I was amused to find myself talked of as so “decidedly conservative . . . .”

Maria Mitchell was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women and president for a term. Its congresses were held yearly in various places, typically in the Northeast. The Mrs. Hanaford she refers to is the Rev. Phebe Coffin Hanaford, a Quaker daughter of Nantucket, who would become the first woman ordained as a Universalist minister in New England.

I, too, find it amusing that Maria was talked of as conservative but I can also see that as the women’s movement grew that there were more women involved whom Maria would feel were not as “high-toned” or were not as “moral” as others. Schisms occurred within the women’s rights movement and while Maria’s first and foremost push for women was women in education, she did believe and fight for women’s rights. But did you know that she turned down a speaking engagement offered to her by Susan B. Anthony? I would say that well illustrates where Maria’s thoughts and allegiance were at.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

March 16, 1885. In February, 1831, I counted seconds for father, who observed the annular eclipse at Nantucket. I was twelve and a half years old. In 1885, fifty-four years later, I counted seconds for a class of students at Vassar; it was the same eclipse, but the sun was only about half-covered. Both days were perfectly clear and cold.

In the 1850s, this eclipse observation was “documented” post-eclipse by Herminia B. Dassel, an artist who had come to the island to paint Abram Quary, the last male Wampanoag on the island. One of the portraits is at the Atheneum, the other at the Nantucket Historical Association. The interesting thing about the Mitchell eclipse double portrait is that it is not Maria posed with her father but instead the youngest Mitchell sister, Kate (Eliza Katherine). Maria refused to sit for the portrait. The artist would take many liberties in her interpretation of the event, the equipment, and Kate’s appearance (she looks like her eighteen year old self, not twelve year old Maria, and is not dressed as a Quaker would be). William Mitchell and the artist were finally able to convince Maria to sit for a portrait. You will find this portrait on our website, the more recognized one of her peering through a telescope and dressed as a Quaker. Maria would become close to the artist, becoming the godmother of the artist’s daughter. Dassel would also paint a portrait of William Mitchell. We have a photograph of the portrait but sadly the portrait was lost within the family.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellSeptember 3. We have been three weeks in London “out of season” but with plenty of letters; at present we have as many acquaintances as we desire. Last night we were at the opera; tonight we go out to dine and tomorrow evening to a dance, the next day to Admiral Smyth’s. The opera fatigued me, as music always does. I tired my eyes and ears in the vain effort to appreciate it. Mario was the greatest star of the evening but I knew no difference.

At this date, Maria Mitchell was still very much at the beginning of her European tour as a young woman’s chaperone. For many Americans, Maria included, a European tour served as a college education of sorts. Visits to the opera, grand palaces and museums, ruins and historic buildings and sites served as a source of education and inspiration. While she tried the opera – we have her opera glasses to prove it – Maria was supposedly tone deaf so I am sure it was not easy for her to make her way through an entire opera. Dancing was a whole other thing – Quakers forbid it – but at this point Maria had left Quaker meeting. So she was certainly taking it all in and trying everything – even things she did not enjoy – in order to learn and expose herself to new things.  Now that is a good tourist!

JNLF

More from the Special Collections

Quaker WaysSince the Wing has been emptied and all the Special Collection books have been cleaned and moved to a climate-controlled space, I miss meeting “new” books each day. But, as I cleaned the books, I took images of ones that struck me as interesting or had ephemera inserted, or had lovely covers or plates. This was one such book. It actually was not very “exciting” but when I opened it, this is what I found inside. The book is Quaker Ways by A. Ruth Fry, a British Quaker born in the late nineteenth century. She was an active promoter of peace, a writer, and came from a well-known activist Quaker family, her father being instrumental in the negotiations at the Hague Tribunal in 1917. One of Ruth Fry’s books, probably the more well-known one, A Quaker Adventure, concerned her travels through war-torn Europe helping refugees and others affected by the Great War.

I am sure that many of her books were found on the shelves of Quakers and others in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This book in particular appeared to be on the shelf of Ethel Parish Fletcher, the great-granddaughter of Lucretia Coffin Mott! Inside the book an envelope was pasted that revealed a calling card belonging to Mrs. Fletcher with what you see written on the verso. At some point, the book came to us. Pretty interesting and, dare I say, cool! Calling card in Quaker Ways

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellDec. 14th. {1857} I am beginning to know something of French ways.

1st. The French keep no fires. They have a little fireplace, they burn a little firewood, a little coal but they really do not keep a warm room. If you call on a lady in the morning, she receives you in a cold room. She is wrapped in a shawl, and shivering, you are wrapped in a cloak and shivering . . . .

2nd. Wood is exceedingly dear. Accustomed as I have to a great fire, I built one in my rooms of the American kind the first day I took rooms in Paris. It cost me more than forty cents that day . . . .

That much have been shocking to the owner of the boarding house where Maria Mitchell “took rooms” but perhaps it was a banner day for daily income, or not. As lovers of history know, whether it be European of American history, wood in Europe had become very scarce even by the mid to late 17th century due to its overuse for building and as fuel, thus another push to settle new lands and ship the wood from the forests back to now forest deprived Europe. Obviously. Mitchell learned her lesson on that first day but I can sympathize, working several months of the year in an unheated Mitchell House I could see where she longed to be warm, even if it cost her quite a bit of money. She must have looked quite extravagant, the Quaker-raised woman from Nantucket, but oh the warmth!

JNLF

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?