A Simple Coat Peg Tells a Story of Nantucket’s Tinsmith

Peleg's coat peg

This was previously published in Yesterday’s Island this summer and on my Nantucket Chronicle column, “The Nation of Nantucket.” If you keep up with “Maria Mitchell’s Attic,” then you should know who Peleg Mitchell Junior is!

It’s small, oddly shaped, has a screw-like quality at one end and a rounded nub at the other, and has a red and white gummed label adhered to it. People often ask, “What is that?” as they peer into the case to see some of the smaller items in the Mitchell House collection.

“That, is Peleg Mitchell’s coat peg,” we answer. Who is Peleg Mitchell and why do we have his coat peg? Peleg Mitchell Jr, like Maria Mitchell herself, was the youngest of ten children born to Peleg Mitchell Sr and his wife, Lydia Cartwright Mitchell in 1802. Peleg Mitchell Jr (Peleg) lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria Mitchell’s family moved to the Pacific National Bank when she was 18. Her father, as bank cashier, was in charge of the entire bank and housing above the bank came with the position. Thus, when they moved out, William sold the home at 1 Vestal to his youngest sibling, Peleg; the MMA has the original bill of sale.

Peleg was a tinsmith. In fact, he and his partner James Austin were the only tinsmiths practicing at the time so they had a very busy shop. Think of tinware, in part, as the Tupperware of the time – tin was used for all sorts of things – lanterns, candleholders, food containers, colanders, graters, lanterns, boxes . . . it was fairly cheap, easy to fabricate quickly, and just plain ubiquitous. Peleg was a leader within the Friends (Quaker) meeting and with the schisms that occurred in the faith, he would become a Wilburite while his older brother William would become a Gurneyite. As a leader within the meeting, Peleg also hosted some smaller meetings at the house at 1 Vestal Street in the front sitting room. One of his (probably) many tinsmithing apprentices was one of his nephews, William Forster Mitchell, Maria’s younger brother. This tinsmithing background would help – in part – Forster (as he was referred to) assist in the founding of the Industrial Arts Department at Howard College – Howard University today – in Washington, DC. He and his Uncle Peleg must have been close after this apprenticeship as they also corresponded quite a bit when Forester was the superintendent of Haverford College. Their letters can be found in the Haverford archives – it was founded as a Quaker school.

Back to the coat peg. It is small object – but one of many that the MMA has in its collection at the Mitchell House that belonged to the family. Made of whalebone, it likely screwed into a panel somewhere in the house that was strapped to the plaster – serving as a special coat hook just for Peleg. The large gummed label was unfortunately but likely done in the early part of the twentieth century so that it wasn’t misplaced or someone in the family did not forget what it was and to whom it belonged. In any case, it was cataloged as part of the collection in the 1950s. The donor is unknown which may mean that it drifted about the 1 Vestal Street house a bit; the house became a museum in 1903 coming to the MMA directly from the family so anything that was in the house from Peleg’s and his wife’s time in it simply remained. I have a feeling this might have been still in its place in the wall into the 1950s before someone chose to remove it for safekeeping maybe while some conservation work was being done or so that someone didn’t paint over it or forget what it was and to whom it belonged.



Toys blog

The plastic orange duck you see here is approximately forty-one years old. Yes, I just gave away my age. That plastic duck, made in Germany and speaking very much of the age it was created in both design and color, was mine. Then, it was my brother’s. Then, it was used by my dolls, including my beloved Rub-a-Dub (she could go in the tub! And my Rub-a-Dub had a curl on the top of her washable hair – not many did). Then, that same duck was used by my niece and nephew when they were babies and spending time with Nana and Grandpa. And now?  Well, now it is just about my son’s favorite baby toy. Who would have thought? It is a rattle as well – it has a small bead or two inside and it makes a very soft but pleasant sound. It also gives him some places to rub his itchy gums on – he is teething in a most serious manner . . . we still await teeth after at least two months of teething.

Toys have not changed too much since Maria’s day. Yes, there are entirely too many, they are unfortunately heavily made of plastic, they are brightly colored. But, there were rattles and teethers, dolls and stuffed animals, tea sets and dollhouses, toy soldiers and tin horses. Granted, Quaker toys were far simpler than toys of non-Quakers but they all had a purpose for life stages of infants and children, helping them advance, to get through teething, to remain quiet at meeting or while mother was busy, and teaching children how to be proper adults. Well, my duck did not help me to be a proper adult but it did occupy me quietly for a time as it now does my son and provided me with something to chew upon.

Mitchell House has a small but wonderful assortment of mid to late nineteenth century toys. Once piece in the collection is this tin horse made by Peleg Mitchell Jr’s tinsmith partner, James Austin, for his grandchildren. Its tin tail may have at one time had a small amount of real horse hair tufting from it and it was also likely attached to a larger stand. I will tell you that one wrong move with it and a child would have quickly found out what sharp meant! Its tin mane has a “nice” edge to it that could still make a slice of a delicate hand. So toys taught a little more than some of our toys do today. Child safety was not the same obviously but a child then quickly learned a little respect and caution – not that I condone that way of thinking! We have come a long way, no? And just think, when you see the cradle in the birth room at the Mitchell House, rocking a baby was not the soothing gentle act we all think about when we see one. Women rocked those babies in the 18th century and earlier; hard. Babies were not necessarily soothed to sleep. After a mother’s rocking, they were probably semi-conscious or on their way to nausea and dizziness that forced them to quiet down and possibly fall asleep. Ugh!

Tin Horse