Maria Mitchell’s Attic
Textbooks Through Time

Apparently, little has changed over time. Or should I say, that even in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, teachers and administrators had to warn their students not to deface school owned textbooks. I apologize for the blurriness, but this was another Special Collections gem I came across and it did not seem to want to have its picture taken!

P.S. For some reason, Tumblr has decided to flip the image - sorry! It cannot be made right side up.

Your Local Library – Big, Little, or Very Small

This came into my email in box a short while ago. Libraries, as we know, come in all shapes and sizes and there are some tiny ones photographed here that I would love to spend some time inside sitting and reading – the smaller and cozier the better though the mailbox one is only suitable for the Borrowers or the Tinies. Take a look:

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

April 6, 1882. Last night I went to Champney’s to a Reception … . My little namesake is lovely … .The weather is dismal in the extreme. Lydia Dame arrived this morning. Miss Herschel called yesterday. She is very pleasing. She will probably go back to Vassar when I go …

Maria Mitchell’s journals are a mixture of small daily events, her deepest thought, and discussions of science, math, and astronomy. They also show the breadth of her world – meaning the people she came into contact with and the friendships she maintained for life. This little piece is interesting because within the span of twenty-four hours so many portions of her life came together. To start with, Maria Mitchell was close to the Champney family. Lizzie Champney had been a student of Maria Mitchell’s. A prolific author, especially of adventure storied for children, Lizzie and her husband J. Wells “Champ” Champney, an artist, named their daughter after Maria. Lizzie also dedicated a book on constellations to Maria, a book which Champ illustrated. I blogged about this some time long ago. We have a portrait of maria which was painted by Champ and was given to the MMA in 1905 by Maria Mitchell Wells Champney Humphrey, Maria Mitchell’s namesake.

Rose Herschel, daughter of Sir John Herschel, was just a small child when Maria Mitchell spent time with her famous astronomical family at the family home Collingwood during her trip to Europe in the 1850s. Maria Mitchell maintained a lifelong connection to the Herschels – who you may recognize, as John Herschel’s father was the famous William Herschel and his aunt was the astronomer Caroline Herschel. When visiting them in England, Maria was the recipient of a page from Caroline’s notebook from her nephew John Herschel. I have blogged about this before. The page is in the Archives here at MMA.

And Lydia Dame is one of Maria Mitchell’s nieces. She is the daughter of Katherine Mitchell Dame, the youngest child (the tenth) of William and Lydia Mitchell. Kate, as she was referred to, married Owen Dame, a school principal and they lived in Lynn, Massachusetts. The Dame family is one of several reasons why Maria and her father moved to Lynn in 1861 after her mother passed away. Lynn also had a large Quaker population and was close to another sister of Maria’s, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who lived in Cambridgeport. Additionally, Lynn was close to the Harvard Observatory – Maria and William were close friends of the Bonds who ran its observatory and William served on the observatory’s Board of Overseers for many years. The Mitchells and Bonds collaborated and shared research. Maria would pass away in Lynn in 1889.


Snead and Company: Builder of the MMA Library Wing, 1933

In the early 1930s, the Maria Mitchell Association realized that it needed more room for its Library. The William Mitchell Schoolhouse (the shingled portion of the Library that opened as such in 1920) was overwhelmed with the book collections and the Maria Mitchell Papers, Mitchell Family Papers, and Maria Mitchell’s own books and those of her family. All needed better and more secure space. So, in the midst of the Great Depression, they began the process of planning and fundraising for an addition that would be fireproof and secure. This was no small feat at this time and letters in the MMA Archives discuss that they were knowingly taking on such a project when people were facing economic hardship. They feared they would struggle to raise the funds but knew that this was very much needed for the organization. They also knew it would be of great benefit to islanders and visitors alike. Money came from far and wide, from small amounts to fairly large amounts.

After putting the new Fireproof Wing (Wing) out to bid with many separate bids for the different components, the MMA heard from Snead and Company of New Jersey, a company well-known for the state-of-the-art library stacks and libraries that it created. The Snead and Company cast iron book stacks were found all over the world and even closer to home at the likes of Harvard and the Washington, DC Public Library. Snead and Co. would go on to “revolutionize and standardize” library book stacks. They would also develop a lighting system and the first compact shelving. Their shelving could be easily modified and they helped to advocate for open stacks beginning in the 1930s. MMA made the decision to use Snead and Company with local contractors working with Snead to complete the project from foundation to dry wells to paint and stucco.

Because of its decision, MMA was the recipient of state-of-the-art library stacks and the new Snead lighting system. Snead oversaw all of the building of the Wing, under the direction of well-respected architect Alfred Shurrocks who lived up the street, was a friend to the MMA, and was married to a Mitchell family descendant! In building the Wing, they utilized the NatCo Double Shell Load Bearing Tile, a wall system of terracotta tiles that is fireproof and exceptionally strong. Just take a look at one of their advertisements that I found.

As MMA works towards the conservation of the exterior of the MMA Library and Wing, funded by the Community Preservation Act, and the re-use of the interior into a lab/classroom and state-of-the-art natural science collections storage, we will be working within the framework of the building, continuing to utilize the Snead stacks for storage. I have already written about the conservation of the roof tiles last fall, so stay tuned for reports on upcoming work which includes the beginning of work on the stucco, steel, and terracotta tiles this spring.


Paper, Please!!

I think I have said this before, perhaps many times before, so I apologize but I think it needs to be repeated every so often (though this is a completely different piece of writing). I fear for the historians, curators, archivists, researchers, and other who come after us. Our devotion to email, the Internet, and text messaging is leaving a vacuum of documents. There is no paper. There is no paper trail. There is no information found in a file, a letter, or a journal for those in the future to learn about us and what we do, choices made, our thoughts. We still have books – though people do not treasure or respect them as they should. But very few still write letters or keep journals.

I rely on paper for my research into the Mitchell family, Nantucket history, Nantucket women … I rely on paper – letters, receipts, bills, 1933 specifications for the MMA’s Science Library. This particular information has allowed me to determine how the building was built, even the original color of the stucco as we move through the conservation process of the exterior of our Library building as it becomes an ecology lab/classroom and natural science collections storage space. To me, it’s not just fascinating “Stuff” to read, it is paper I learn from, words that inform me, words that help me learn, information that I pass onto others so that we may all learn, learn from mistakes, learn from discoveries made but forgotten but that are more relevant today than ever before. From paper, I have learned how the concrete roof frame of the Library Wing is attached to the walls – something the structural engineer needs for the conservation work. From paper, I see notes in the margins; see notes written on envelopes; see ephemera stuck between pages of books; and a small bloom from a rare plant found at Quidnet in 1922 that was pressed between the pages of a plant book, noting where on island it was found, when it bloomed, and how it had never been found anywhere else on island before. This information can be used by scientists – not just MMA’s but others from on and off-island.

If so much of our conversation is by text or email, what will those of the future know of us? Will they consider us to have gone backwards? Will they know why you made a decision if it was only in an email, never printed, and their future computers cannot read any computer data from 200 years before? CDs don’t last forever – and technology changes rapidly no matter the “safeguards” technology seems to think it puts in place so that we can access old computer data.

So this here is a plea for more paper – try and keep a journal, record the weather, write some letters. Because if it wasn’t for paper, I wouldn’t know what Maria thought of her travels through Europe with Nathaniel Hawthorne and neither would you.


More from the Special Collections: William (Cap’n Bill) Gould Vinal

Again, you might not think there is much “exciting” to the book until you crack it open! Never judge a book by its cover they say and here is another example of that. This was an inscription written by Cap’n Bill (William Gould Vinal) in his book Nature Recreation in 1946 for the MMA. He gave the book to the MMA Library that summer when he came to give a lecture for the MMA. His lecture “Natural History of the Pilgrims” was given while he was Director of Nature Education at Massachusetts State College (UMASS). He also gave the last two nature walks of the summer season for the MMA. The book is inscribed in part to Grace Wyatt who was the Director of the Natural Science Department for many years.

Cap’n Bill, as he was known, (1881- 1973) was the author of many books, this one featured here among them. Born in 1881, in Norwell, Mass (then called South Scituate), he graduated from the Bridgewater State Teachers College and then from Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard where he received a second bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Later, he received a doctorate from Brown. He became one of the first formal nature educators in the United States. He taught at several universities, taught summer nature camps, served as a ranger naturalist in parks, and then went on to introduce nature education at Western Reserve University in the School of Education. In 1937, he returned to Massachusetts and established the Nature Guide School at the Massachusetts State College (UMASS) from which he retired in 1951. This made him the first instructor in nature education at UMASS. His passion was nature, its conservation, camping, nature guiding, and enjoying and teaching others about the outdoors and nature – a perfect fit for the MMA! Among other things he was a biologist for the Massachusetts Fish and Game Commission, active in Massachusetts Audubon, and he was a prolific writer authoring not only nature books, but nature guides, nature pamphlets, and a nature newsletter that ran for about two decades. There is at least one school named for him in Massachusetts – as well there should be! His papers, in part, can be found at the UMASS libraries. An interesting man and I am glad to learn a bit about him.


Women’s History Month – Alice Paul

This link for a blog came to me last week from the Mitchell House’s 2013 summer intern, Sarah Scott, who is a 2012 graduate of Vassar College.

Alice Paul was a Quaker suffragist who was born in 1885. She most likely knew of Maria Mitchell but she was born just a few years before Maria passed away. Quite a remarkable woman, Paul often faced controversy in how she went about making her point. Take a look at these links to learn more about her.

Blog Post forwarded from Sarah on Alice Paul:
Alice Paul Institute:


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March 31 {1857}. We are at length in New Orleans, and up three flights at the Saint Charles, in a dark room, at the pretty price of three dollars a day … .The peculiarities of the city dawn upon me very slowly. I first noticed the showy dress of the children, white waists and fancy skirts – then the turbaned heads of the black women in the streets, and next the bouquet-selling boys with their French phrases.

Maria and her charge, Prudence Smith, arrived in New Orleans after a seven day trip down the mighty Mississippi River; they had embarked at St. Louis. This was the American leg of their tour, Maria serving as Prudie’s chaperone in the Southern United States before they would journey to Europe several months later. I have posted Maria’s journal entries before concerning these trips. Having lived in New Orleans for few years myself, it is fun to read her comments about the city – from the people, to the French market, to the streets themselves.


Women’s Suffrage and Lady Gaga

I have posted this twice already but because it is Women’s History Month, I find it a good time to do so again. It’s clever and at the same time helps to tell an important story in women’s history while giving it a bit of a 21st century twist. It comes from the National Women’s History Project.


Women’s History Month

Yes!! It is Women’s History Month for the ENTIRE month of March. I encourage you to learn one fact about an important woman in your community. Here is one for you – did you know that the first American born female to receive a medical degree was born and raised on Nantucket? Her name: Lydia Folger Fowler (1822 - 1879) and she specialized in gynecology and working with women and children. Just four years younger than Maria Mitchell, I am sure they knew one another, possibly went to school with one another, and Lydia may have even attended William Mitchell’s school, but that is just a guess as we have no records from his private school.

For the past eight months or so, I have been writing for “Nantucket Chronicle,” an online magazine – . My column is called “The Nation of Nantucket” and there you will find several articles on island women called “Daring Daughters.” Take a look.