Maria Mitchell’s Attic
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.


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: