Maria Mitchell’s Attic
Answer to What Is This?

What you are looking at is the inside of a kaleidoscope found in the Mitchell Hose collection. Kaleidoscopes were very popular nineteenth century toys – and not just for the amusement of children. They were also good Quaker toys – quiet but also plain and simple on the outside, hiding the beauty within. This has I would say at least a forty pieces of colored glass and some of them are filled with liquid!


What Is This?

I apologize for the blurriness. It’s not something that is easy to photograph. Do you know what this is and where it is located?


Ah, We Are Open!!

And the breezes are moving through the Mitchell House. We have flung open the doors and fresh air is better circulating through the House as it moves from the front and 1825 Kitchen doors and breezes up through to the third floor and out the roofwalk hatch as it did in the Mitchells day. We are dusted, and cleaned, and scrubbed. The tall case clock is again ticking, as is the chronometer. Both these artifacts really make the Mitchell House feel as though it is alive and that you might spy one of the Mitchells – William or Maria in particular – bent over the chronometer getting ready to rate the chronometer of a sea captain.

Our summer intern, Claire Payne, who will be a senior at Oberlin College, is already hard at work learning the finer points of cleaning a historic house museum and its artifacts, planning for some exciting Junior Historian classes for the summer, and she has just completed the development of a fun “Seek and Find” scavenger hunt for the younger set when they visit the House with their families.

The garden is blooming – you should see the foxglove – they are enormous! – and William would be overjoyed at the colors. Many of the plants were once found in his own garden here at 1 Vestal Street. I have planted Morning Glories and Nasturtiums again, as well as Sweet Peas. We also have a Tunbergia vine which William could have had at some point. Such a plant was also found in Thomas Jefferson’s garden, so it’s been “kicking” around in gardens for centuries. Many of us also know it by the name Black-eyed Susan Vine. Lupines are out and I am hoping that the Hollyhocks flower this year – they are biennials so not sure if they will flower this year.

So, come take a look and join us for a tour – make it an annual pilgrimage to learn what is new, say hello, meet this year’s summer intern, and hear what we were up to all winter.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

June 1851

My Dear Sister … . Mrs. Dassel has painted me kneeling at my telescope. It looks like Adeline Coffin and is of course not handsome. If thee was here thee would have Mitchell’s {William Mitchell Barney, son of Sally and Matthew Barney} painted at once. She has a head of a child N. P. Willis that is very lovely. She has taken a room at the Atheneum and put up about a dozen pictures – very beautiful – Isabel is lovely. She has not tried to make a portrait, but a very pretty picture … . She is now engaged on Abra’m Quary – he is much flattered by it and it will be a fine portrait. I think we shall buy it or a copy for the Atheneum … . She will paint father also for herself – having made a pencil sketch … .We like her very much … .

The above is from a letter sent by Maria Mitchell to her eldest sister, Sally Mitchell Barney. In it, Maria details what everyone in the Mitchell family is up to. She includes some details about Herminia B. Dassel, an artist who came to Nantucket to paint the last Native Americans and also took an interest in the famous Mitchell family. This was of course four years after Maria’s discovery of the comet. At the time of this letter, Maria was still the librarian for the Atheneum and the portrait of Quary that she mentions possibly buying for the Atheneum, she did buy as it hangs in the Atheneum by the front door today. Opposite it, on the other side of the entry, is a portrait of Maria herself. Another Dassel portrait of Quary is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association. And the portrait Maria states she posed for is in the collection of the MMA. It was given to us in the early 1990s by Sally’s great granddaughter – the granddaughter of Mitchell whom she mentions above as well. Maria and Dasssel would become good friends – Maria was named the godmother of Dassel’s daughter. And the sketch of William made by Dassel that Maria states would become a portrait? It likely did come to fruition. It made its way down a side of the family but was unfortunately lost, likely sold as part of a family estate though we do have a photograph of it and one can tell it is the brush work of Dassel.


Bake Ovens

On May 17, Mitchell House co-hosted a bake oven demonstration with Nantucket Preservation Trust. Island restoration mason, Pen Austin, and homeowner Michelle Elzay again joined us. Pen spoke about chimneys, fireboxes, bake ovens, and lime mortar and Michelle welcomed us into her home where she demonstrated the use of the bake oven and fed us such delicious foods! It was free to the public in honor of National Preservation Month.

Here are a few photographs of what you missed. Stay tuned – perhaps we will do it again next year! (And asparagus is DELICIOUS in the bake oven!!)


How Lily of the Valley Opens Memories

The Lily of the Valley at Mitchell House is in full bloom. It is just about the earliest Lily of the Valley to make its appearance on island and at Mitchell House it lives in full, blazing sun which is fairly unusual. When you walk into the rear yard, it is all you smell. It is calming and sweet and the air is full of it. I look forward to being greeted by this heady scent and to picking tiny little bouquets of it. I am not sure how old it is – I would say at least the 1930s when the cottage was added but it could date back to the nineteenth century – at least that is what I would like to believe!

Lily of the Valley was found outside the porch of my childhood home, transplanted there by my Mother I think from the home of a close family friend. This friend – more like a great aunt to me as she was my Nana’s best friend from about the age of 10 – also had French and white lilacs blooming in her yard so our home always had big bouquets of lilacs at this time of the year – one of my favorite scents. We also had two lilac bushes in our yard – the lighter purple color. One of them was extremely tall – reaching all the way to the middle of the second floor right outside the bathroom. So, when it was blooming, you could smell it through the open window but also, my Mother would simply open the screen and lean out with her clippers to cut the blooms.

My mother-in-law’s favorite flower was Lily of the Valley. She had a bit of it along the side of the garage. She and my father in law also had a very large, old Bleeding Heart plant in the backyard alongside the fence. It was beautiful. When the house sold, my husband dug it up and brought it from upstate New York all the way to Nantucket. We were nervous that the trip and transplantation of it would bring it to an end. Supposedly, Bleeding Heart plants don’t like to be transplanted. But I am happy to report, a year later it is in full bloom and makes us happy and sad to look at it. I think it may have actually been transplanted before – from the farm where my mother-in-law grew up. Unfortunately, we will never know. I have other Bleeding Heart plants in the yard at home but the New York one is much heartier – I think given its age and because the strain is more pure.

I also grew up with Bleeding Heart plants in the yard. And one we had was also a transplant. It was given to my Mother by a woman who worked at the butcher shop she used to shop at when we were young. It’s amazing how simple things, even a plant, can bring up so many happy memories of people, events, places, and seasons.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Berlin, May 7, 1858. {Alexander von} Humboldt had replied to my letter by a note, saying that he should be happy to see me at 2p.m… . There was a clock in sight, and I stayed but half an hour … .
Having been nearly a year in Europe, I had not kept up my reading of American newspapers, but Humboldt could tell me the latest news, scientifically and politically … .It was singular that Humboldt should advise me to use the sextant; it was the first instrument that I ever used, and it is a very difficult one. No young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered … .

Maria Mitchell met with many well-known, and indeed, famous scientists during her time in Europe. By this time, her charge, Prudence Swift, and long returned to the US and Maria continued to travel throughout Europe, finding people to accompany her as was only appropriate at that time. In a nutshell, von Humboldt (b. 1769) was a world famous geographer, naturalist and explorer most noted for his five volume work Cosmos. I think it goes a long way to illustrating just how well-known Maria Mitchell truly was that von Humboldt, now an elderly man at their meeting, was able to make time and an effort to receive her. He would die just a year later on May 6, 1859.


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.