Maria Mitchell’s Attic

Sep 15

The Grapes of Wrath?

At moments, I have a small choice word or two as I drag yet another squished grape into the cottage on the bottom of my foot. And then I think to myself, “It’s September at the Mitchell House!”

Peleg Mitchell Junior, Maria Mitchell’s uncle and the owner of 1 Vestal Street from 1836 until 1882 (his wife, Mary, continued to own the House until 1902 when she passed away) planted a grape arbor at the rear of Mitchell House. The grape plant continues to thrive to this day; in fact it is protected in the preservation easement on the Mitchell House. The original supports are long gone, but Peleg’s grapes continue on a new arbor. This year we have a bumper crop with no mold or any issues with the fruit it seems. Concord grapes, they start off sweet and then turn sour – an acquired taste. Some people like to eat the little tendrils that allow the grapes to climb, claiming they have a lemony flavor though I don’t taste that. The birds, in particular the catbirds, are made happy, especially with this year’s crop. When Peleg lived here they also had Isabella grapes climbing over the woodshed but unfortunately that structure and Neighbor North (the outhouse) are long gone.

In Two Steps Down, Alice Albertson Shurrocks’s book about the Mitchell House, her grandfather was Peleg, she writes that the Concord grape arbor, “stood opposite to the cookroom at the edge of the sunny slope, leading from the upper grass plot to the lower … and I could look down on the vine from my bedroom.” She would spend her summers at 1 Vestal. The slope is long gone, replaced by a small retaining wall in the 1930s when the Curator’s Cottage was added at the rear of the House but it is still sunny.

Mrs. Shurrocks was married to Alfred Shurrocks, a well-respected architect who designed the Wing of the MMA Science Library. Mrs. Shurrocks was one of the curators of the MMA. They lived at 16 Vestal Street. In the next few weeks, I will give you an update on the conservation work there. The mason is just beginning!


Sep 08

Work Has Begun at the Mitchell Lot at Prospect Hill Cemetery!

It will take quite a bit of time but happily, on August 26th, the stone work was begun at the Prospect Hill Cemetery to restore the wrought iron fence at the Mitchell family lot where William and Lydia Mitchell, along with Maria, her oldest brother Andrew, her oldest sister Sally, and her aunt and namesake Maria Coleman are all buried. Neil Patterson and his crew will be re-setting the granite stones so that DeAngelis Ironwork of Boston can restore the wrought iron fence that once ringed the lot. It likely fell into disrepair in the early twentieth century and went for scrap metal, perhaps for the war effort. Many of the lots, if not all of them, were surrounded by fences at Prospect Hill.

Using a historic photo that was found in a Maria Mitchell scrapbook, we are restoring the fence to the best of our ability – the image is a little grainy and blurry so some details have been lost. This work is all funded by a Community Preservation Act grant that Jascin Leonardo Finger, Curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections wrote for Fiscal Year 2013. The grant included restoration of the fence at the Hadwen lot at Prospect Hill, as well as the conservation of the wrought iron fence at the Coffin School on Winter Street. Since the same ironwork and stone masons would be used, a collaborative ask was created. For approximately a decade, the Mitchell House curator has been collaborating with Prospect Hill and its historian, Paula Lundy Levy, offering stone cleaning workshops for the public that illustrate hands-on how to properly clean historic gravestones. The restoration of the fences and the collaborative grant were a natural progression of their work together and long overdue – the family’s deserve to have their resting place restored to what it once was. Stay tuned as we bring you more information and images as the work progresses! And thank you, to the Community Preservation Committee, Neil Patterson and Crew, and DeAngelis Ironwork!


Sep 02

Answer to What Is This?

This is a small area of inlay that is found towards the bottom portion of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Made in Boston in 1789, the clock was built by John Deverell and was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William’s parents in December 1812 (or the twelfth month 1812 as they were Quakers). It was then given by them to one of Maria Mitchell’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who then left it to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. It came to the Mitchell House in the late 1940s from his estate. If you follow this blog, you may remember that I wrote a bit about Kendall – he was a senior architect with McKim, Mead and White.

Aug 25

Do You Know Where or What This Is?

Do you know what this is and where it is located?

Aug 18


A longer and more intimate Mitchell House Junior Historian class is the Mitchell House Sampler which we offer once or twice a summer. Relatively new to the repertoire of offerings at Mitchell House, this class lasts four hours and the students have a chance to spend more time at the Mitchell House with the intern and curator, learning about the time in which Maria Mitchell lived and eating their lunch in the backyard. They work on different crafts that children and adults created in the nineteenth century, learn about Maria’s and her family’s role in astronomy and science, and learn a bit more about what a historic house museum is and what makes the Mitchell House so special. Crafts and activities include nineteenth century games, fiber arts, cooking, and creating their own scientific-related items from kaleidoscopes to telescopes. The images seen here are of the recent class on July 28th, ably led by this year’s Mitchell House intern, Claire Payne. Since we had a group of young girls, Claire started the class off in yarn doll making which they took to with deft hands and keen eyes!


Aug 12

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

August 15, 1835

MARIA MITCHELL proposes to open a school
For Girls, on the 1st of next month, at the Franklin school house.
Instruction will be given in Reading, Writing, Spelling,
Geography, Grammar, History, Natural Philosophy,
Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra.
Terms, $3 per quarter. None admitted under six years of age.

The above advertisement appeared in the local paper on August 15, 1835. At the age of seventeen, Maria Mitchell, already known for her abilities, was opening a school and she likely attracted a large group of girls. Given what she proposed to teach and the many levels of girls who might attend, this illustrates her ambition and her early desires to promote women’s’ education. Supposedly, this school was located on Traders Lane, just off of Main Street and just a short walk from 1 Vestal Street where the family was still living before moving to the Pacific National Bank for William Mitchell’s position as cashier. Maria would only run this school for about a year. She closed it because she was offered a position as the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum for which she received sixty dollars “per annum.”


Aug 04

Important Women Who Shaped Our Nation

I came across this the other day – put out by Wisconsin Media Lab. Take a look and learn about another woman you might not have heard of before - Belle Case La Follette.

Jul 28

Island History at “Nantucket Chronicle”

In a little bit of self-promotion but also some cross-pollination, I would like to make you aware of “Nantucket Chronicle,” an online island magazine for islanders (and visitors) that is now in its second year. I have been writing for the “Chronicle” for about a year now. My column, “The Nation of Nantucket” features the people, places, and events that have shaped the island we know and love. I mention this here because I cover all sorts of island history for the “Chronicle” that does not typically show up in “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” including short biographies of island women of the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. So, if you have been enjoying this blog and want to learn more about our island’s unique history, take a look at “The Nation of Nantucket.”


Jul 21

Somewhat Forgotten By Time

My husband grew up in a rural, mainly farming community outside Buffalo, NY. We recently returned for a family wedding and stopped at some of the spots that were must visits: Duffs for Buffalo Wings, Beef on Weck, his mother’s favorite chocolate and ice cream shop (yes, we gained some weight in just 4 days), his family’s old farmhouse (that is unfortunately no longer in the family), and the large tracks of farmland that are still in the family and where we picked wildflowers for the cemetery.

It’s interesting to compare the architecture of this little town – which is unfortunately now being overbuilt – to that of Nantucket. There are a lot of brick Greek revival farmhouses like you see in one of the images. This house has thankfully been largely forgotten by time. It’s certainly inhabited as you can see by the air conditioning unit in the window, but the old pump still stands outside with a newer coat of white paint. I am sure if primed, that pump would still work.

My husband’s family’s old farmhouse is mid- to late nineteenth century. It’s the white clapboard house with the transom over the front door that you see here and it still has a few out buildings of the same vintage. It sits along what is now a wide, busy road – though in rural areas that is often all there is – set back in the landscape with nothing immediately around it but grass. The driveway is simple, just two tire ruts. It makes you realize that this is how it always looked thought I am sure the trees are much taller. I can imagine his great grandparents or those before them planting some of those trees.

Solitary and still among the fields of the farm, the house has not changed. It’s quiet. It was where my husbands’s great-grandparents raised their two children – his great aunt and his grandfather. While the family sadly no longer owns the house, the farmland still sees some farming – his cousins rent it out to local farmers at times so corn and other crops are grown on the old farmland still. His cousin hunts just as his family before him and in the past, the family was still felling some trees and clearing out fallen ones to use as firewood. My husband remembers doing this when he was young. While my son is too young to remember this visit, we hope he will visit again and again and learn a bit more about this side of his family as well as their history and that he will learn to appreciate the past, particularly those buildings forgotten by time but thankfully largely unchanged because of it.


Jul 15

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Lynn July 8, 1868

My Dear President {Raymond},

My habit of grumbling has become so chronic, that I feel disposed, as I put your note down, to fret, that three such tasteful persons as yourself, Miss L{yman} and Miss A{very} had not settled all my domestic questions for me, and acted as upholsterers.

If you had done it, I haven’t a doubt I should have fretted at that. And the weather is quite too warm for such active exercise as a fit of extra fretting! I want – in the room in which the clock is {this was a room immediately off the dome via a small staircase and used by Maria as a sitting room and bedroom – not its original intention and very drafty}, four or five respectable chairs, and a lounge or sofa. If you ask what I mean by respectable, I reply “I do not know.”

I am as ignorant of furniture as of music. I want such a state of things in that room, which is the one into which the families of Trustees come, that those families shall not reproach me in regard to my “style” – which has happened in two cases.

From her home in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she and her father would return in the summer for several years, Maria sent this letter to the president of Vassar College where she had been professor and head of the observatory since 1865. This was not the first nor the last letter in complaint not just about salary, but in how the Observatory was equipped, and how much it was lacking in serving as a suitable dwelling place – what an observatory is not meant to be. The lounge served as her bed for many years and the drafts from the dome were likely incredible. And I can only imagine what was said to her by the families of Trustees, Trustees themselves, and the parents of her students – it reflected poorly on her and yet it was the college’s fault, not her own, that she was left to try and make something out of nothing. And when one is also trying to fundraise for one’s department as Maria was, appearance does count. This was a constant battle for her during her tenure at Vassar and one that was never fully resolved, no matter how beloved she was.