Miss Mitchell’s Students: Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin

Image courtesy of the Coffin School Trustees

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The fifth, and final in this series, is:

Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, 1850-1930

Born in Brooklyn, New York to Nantucket Quakers and reared in a Quaker household, Elizabeth or “Lizzie” attended Quaker schools.  She entered Vassar College and enrolled in Maria’s astronomy classes, becoming close to Maria and her father.  Nantucket was not the only connection for these three – they were also distant cousins.  Lizzie was a classmate and became a good friend of Mary Whitney.  When she graduated from Vassar in 1870, she furthered her schooling in the 1870s at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague where she was among the first women to be accepted.  Several tours through Europe with family, tutelage under many fine artists of the nineteenth century, and friendships with the artist Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and others provided Coffin schooling in the arts.  Through her membership in the Art Students League of New York, the Brooklyn Art Club, and the Brooklyn Art Guild, of which she was president, Lizzie became acquainted with artists from around the world.  Her connections, her schooling, and her talent led to participation in major exhibitions throughout the country.

Lizzie made frequent trips to Nantucket, until she built a house on Lily Street in 1900.  She returned to New York often, but preferred to call Nantucket her home.  Eakins was among many artists who would visit her on Nantucket.  During the extended visits, Lizzie continued to paint but also took on many new activities, particularly in support of the island and its people.  She was active in founding the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, as well as the Goldenrod Literary and Debating Society (a group for island girls), the brainchild of Sara Winthrop Smith.  Perhaps because of Lizzie’s friendship with Smith and her close friend Gertrude King (teacher and principal at the Coffin School), and her family ties to the school, she was instrumental in putting the Coffin School back on its feet.  The school had closed in 1898 due to lack of funds and a dwindling student population.  Coffin’s efforts to redevelop the school as a center for manual-training courses in conjunction with the public schools was what helped to revive it.  With the founding of the Coffin School Association and with the help and support of the Coffin School Trustees, Lizzie’s dream was realized and the school reopened in 1903.

Her work on behalf of the school greatly increased its endowment, and she was influential in establishing the home economics program for Nantucket girls.  Lizzie’s Vassar College schoolmate, Ellen Swallow Richards, was a champion of the home economics movement in schools and partially funded the program on Nantucket.  Ironically, although Lizzie continued to paint, she was better known to islanders as a champion of island causes than as an artist.  Today, many of her works are in the collection of the Coffin School Trustees.

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Ellen Swallow Richards

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The fourth is:

Ellen Swallow Richards, 1842-1911

Swallow Richards entered Vassar at the age of twenty-six – not uncommon for women attending the first women’s colleges – as a third year.  She graduated in 1870 having only had formal schooling starting at age sixteen.  A student of Maria’s – who recognized her ability and promise for science innovation – Ellen found her calling in chemistry which led her to MIT.  All other schools had denied her entry based on her sex but MIT reluctantly accepted her as a test – to “ascertain women’s ability in the sciences.”  In 1873, she received a Bachelor of Science from MIT and Vassar bestowed a Master of Arts on her at the same time.  Together with her husband, Robert Hallowell Richards, a MIT professor of mining, they used their home as a laboratory for devising home efficiencies.  She would head a lab for women at MIT which focused on studying “sanitary chemistry.”  Her work made her the founder of the home economics movement and during her life she published seventeen books on home economics and sanitation; including the first health food cookbook published in the U.S.  She also organized the first school lunch programs, created exhibits on home economics for several world fairs, and introduced healthy and inexpensive cooking to Boston’s immigrant communities.

 

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1881. Sunday, June 12. The eclipse at one o’clock this morning was beautiful.  It had rained for a week and cleared off last evening . . . . I got out a little before 1 a.m. and went to bed at 2 {a.m.}.  Roses are plenty.

This was not a solar eclipse as Maria would observe in 1831 (Nantucket at age 12 ½), Burlington, Iowa (1869), or Denver, Colorado (1878), but a lunar eclipse (note the time of day) viewed from the observatory at Vassar.  School was still in session – yes, colleges did not get out in May – and her well-received and highly-anticipated Dome Party for the year would follow just six days later.  This seems to have been a solitary observation – though two of her nieces via her youngest sister, Kate, may have at least been present in the Observatory as they had come a few days before to stay.

What I love even more is her note about the roses being in bloom.  A naturalist as well, Maria’s journals are always at least peppered – if not written to great depth – with notations about things in nature.  And June, is the time for roses!

JNLF

And please do not forget to join us this Wednesday, June 27 from 7-8 PM for a lecture and book signing at the Nantucket Atheneum with David Baron author of American Eclipse – a book in which Maria Mitchell is one of the featured astronomers.  Baron drew on Mitchell’s papers housed here on island at the MMA to research and write his book. 

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!

JNLF

Answer to Where is This?

Maria Mitchell’s Observatory at Vassar CollegeThis is an observatory and to be exact it is Maria Mitchell’s Observatory at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. It is now a National Historic Landmark. What you see in the niche is the bust of Maria Mitchell that was sculpted by Emma Brigham as a gift from the Vassar College Class of 1877 to the College. The MMA now has a copy (only the second one ever made from the original – the first is at the Hall of Fame which Maria Mitchell was inducted into) of the bust thanks to a generous gift from Mr. James Storrow.

When Vassar College was built, there were only two buildings on campus when it opened in 1865 – Main Building and the Observatory. Everything happened in Main – students lived there, went to classes, dined there, professors were housed – and then you had the quieter Observatory a bit away from Main where Maria Mitchell lived with her father, conducted classes, observed, and welcomed the luminaries (authors, royalty, scientists, women’s rights advocates, and others) of the day into her home.

And congrats to Monica Flegg who guessed what this was last week!

Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellJune 18, 1876. I had imagined the Emperor of Brazil [Dom Pedro II] to be a dark swarthy tall man of 45 years; that he would not really have a crown upon his head, but that I should feel it was somewhere around … and that I should know I was in Royal presence. But he turns out to be a large old man, say 65, broad-headed and broad shouldered, with a big white beard and a very pleasant, even chatty manner … . As he entered the Dome, he turned to ask who the photographs of Father and Mother were. Once in the Dome, he seemed to feel at home. To my astonishment he asked me if Alvan Clark made the glass of the Equatorial … I remarked, “you have been in observatories before,” and he said, “Oh yes, Cambridge and Washington.” He seemed much more interested in the observatory than I could possibly expect … .

Maria had the opportunity to show many well-known people through the Vassar College Observatory which was not just her place of work, but her home as well. Throughout her life, Maria met with and maintained friendships with some of the well-know scientists and other luminaries of her time including, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir George Airy, Sir John Herschel, Harriet Hosmer, Dorthea Dix, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Susan B. Anthony to name just a few.

What is This?

Small Closet located in The Vassar ObservatoryIn 2007, I had the great fortune to travel to Vassar College to do some research in the Vassar College Archives and Special Collections and to stay and investigate the campus for a week. Through a generous and anonymous fund supported by a Vassar alumna who wants to encourage renewed ties between the MMA and Vassar, I was able to go through Maria’s papers that remain at the College. When she left in 1888 due to failing health, she intended to just take a break from Vassar and then return. Unfortunately, her health did not allow for this and thus her sister and a niece traveled to Vassar to pack up her things, choosing to leave some of her papers with the college – in particular those that were more administrative in nature. The MMA has the bulk of her papers however, including her personal papers and letters.

When I was not in the archives, I was crawling about campus, including Maria’s observatory, and was taken on a tour inside before the building was renovated to become the new home for the Education Department. The Vassar Observatory is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Observatory was very much in its original condition when I walked in. I could feel Maria and her students about me. Marks from more than a century of use remained on the floor where equipment had been moved, the beautiful staircase from Maria’s rooms into the dome where Maria and her students had once posed for a photographer welcomed me, and then I came across this small closet on the first floor below her rooms and the dome. Look closely. Despite the twenty-first century debris, do you see the dates written on each shelf? THAT is Maria’s handwriting noting the dates where she likely shelved the glass plates she took of the night sky both on her own and with her students. Now how incredible it that – that in 2007 – and even today I am told – those are still there?!