Maria Mitchell’s Attic
Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1857 Jan 22. Hard winters are becoming the order of things. Winter before last was hard, last winter was harder and this surpasses all winters known before. We have been frozen in to our Island now since the 6th. No one said much about it for the first two or three days. The sleighing was good and all the world was out trying their horses on Main St. – the race-course of the world. Day after day passed and the thermometer sank to a lower point and the minds rose to a higher, and sleighing became uncomfortable and even the dullest man longed for the cheer of a newspaper. The Inquirer came out for a while, but at length had nothing to tell and nothing to Inquire about and so kept its peace … .

Inside the houses we amuse ourselves in various ways. Frank’s family and ours form a club, meeting three times a week and writing machine poetry in great quantities. Occasionally something very droll puts us in a roar of laughter. Frank, Ellen and Kate I think are rather the smartest, tho’ Mr. Macy has written rather the best of all.

Some things never change and Maria Mitchell and her family were confronted with a cold and snowy winter, rendering them – and
the island – house-bound due to the bitter weather. Maria writes in her journal of the sitting room at the Pacific Bank − where the family lived on the second floor − not getting above forty degrees in the evening, though she implies this was fairly snug which helps you get a better feeling for what winter home interiors were like in those days. With constant clouds, Maria found that she could not observe but it seems she likely got to know her sister-in-law Ellen much better (Ellen married Francis “Frank” Macy Mitchell – younger brother of Maria in April 1853), as well as Mr. Macy – Alfred Macy – a lawyer and the head of the Coffin School for several years. Alfred would marry Anne Mitchell (younger sister of Maria) in May of 1857 – perhaps the confined quarters help to kindle the romance all the more!

The family’s entry to the Pacific National Bank. 2014.


Answer to Where Is This?

Oftentimes, the focus is rarely made on this part of an object. But, in close-up detail it is quiet beautiful with its curves and undulations. The patina of time, cracks, and crazing is warm, even where the gilt has worn. This is the frame to the Herminia B. Dassel portrait of Maria Mitchell painted about 1851. Unfortunately, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people would “touch-up” gilt frames with gold radiator paint – yes, really. And this suffers from that. A Mitchell descendant likely did this but they did not necessarily realize back then the issues with what they did so you cannot blame them. The portrait was given to the Mitchell House in the early 1990s, coming to us from the estate of Sally Mitchell Barney’s granddaughter, Virginia Barney. Sally was Maria’s oldest sister.


Where Is This?

Do you know where this is and what it is at the Mitchell House?


The Mitchell House in Winter Slumber.
January 4, 2014.

From Chemical Peel to New Make-Up: Mitchell House Gets a New Coat of Paint

Well, shingling was completed this spring and the sashes were painted last year.  Now, the trim is getting some sprucing up thanks to the good work of Jim Tyler and his crew.  This work is being completed with the funding of a grant for the Mitchell House’s exterior conservation.  While ideally all the painting would be completed at once, it is not always easy given grant funding and timing.  But, for the trim it was better to wait until Nathan Killeen had completed the shingling because he had to remove some of the corner boards and other trim pieces in order to properly shingle.  So, come this summer season, Mitchell House will sparkle even more!  A special thanks to Jim and his wonderful crew who you can see here hard at work on the southern façade of Mitchell House.


A Good Chair


Quite awhile ago, I wrote about some of my collection addictions, including pottery shards, 19th century kitchen mirrors, and of course, enamelware.  Well, here is another one for you.

I love chairs.  Yes, this is another collection addiction of mine.  But not all chairs – chairs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Typically, I like plain, simple wood chairs with a horizontal piece or two of wood for the back and a plain, thick wood seat.  Simple, not a lot of turns to the wood, and not a lot of decorative features or paint. 

Several years ago, I had a meeting at the home of the leader of a group I was working with.  She owned the Obed Macy house, very much untouched and quite a remarkable house.  Yes, Obed was the Nantucket historian (among other things), as well as the son of island entrepreneur Judith Macy, and the nephew of the island “she-pirate” Kezia Coffin.  We met outside on the side porch which was a late 19th century addition to the house and one that certainly reflected what life was like in the period it was added to the house.  The owner had brought out every chair in her home.  I was on a chair high (not a highchair!) – here I had my choice of nineteenth chairs to sit on. Since I was one of the first to arrive, I took my time picking out which chair I was going to sit  on – I kid you not.  I was like Goldilocks − though I was grown-up enough not to sit on every chair to decide which one I was going to claim for the meeting!  I went on and on and likely on and on about all these lovely chairs to her. 

Unfortunately, the day came several years later when she was faced with having to sell her beloved home to move off-island.  She called me.  She wanted to know if I wanted any of her chairs since she remembered how much I went on and on about them.  It was a mixture of emotion because losing this island resident was a loss for the island and for its history and historic architecture.  I went to her home a few days before she was going to have her sale and helped her move items from the house out onto the lovely 19th century side porch where I first reveled in her chair collection and also out into the large, simple backyard that looked like it too had not been touched since the 19th century.  She told me to take whichever chairs I wanted as she wanted me to have them.  Depressing.  I told her I would not take but that I would buy.  We had a little back and forth but she finally relented.  Then, I had to choose and it was quite agonizing.  Not wanting to be a chair hog, I limited myself.

I now have two matching and two others sitting around my dining room table made from salvaged Nantucket pine floorboards.  We refer to them as “Helen’s chairs” – their previous owner.  She likely found them here on Nantucket; one or more may have even come with the house when she bought it.  We eat every meal sitting in them, spend time with our family in long discussions and laughter sitting in them, and each time I sit, touch, dust, or move them, I think of Helen and the house these chairs once sat in and the conversations and people they must have witnessed over the many years.  A simple wood chair – a witness to history and time.


Maria Mitchell at the Nantucket Project

Well, she was not there herself but she was featured in a short called “Short History of Ideas on Nantucket” at this year’s Nantucket Project at the end of September.  The short focuses on Nantucket as a “breeding ground” for progressive thinkers and “doers” going all the way back to the English settlement of the island.  Maria, of course, takes center stage, as well she should!  Take a look at: .


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov. 14 Collingwood {1857}

My dear Father

            This is Sir John Herschel’s place.  I came last night just at dusk, and was very warmly welcomed, first by Sir John and next by Lady Herschel.  Sir John is really an old man, old of his age 66, as old as Mr. Bond, whom he resembles.  I found a fire awaiting me in my room, and a cup of tea and crackers were at once sent up … .I had expected to find Sir John a despot, like Mr. Airy and Dr. Whewell, but to my surprise he is gentle, and very simple, and tells funny little anecdotes (so do Airy and Whewell) and is one of the domestic circle, joins in all the                     chit-chat … .But I am continually mortified my anecdotes that I hear of the “pushing” Americans … .

At this point in her European journey, Maria was alone as the young woman, Prudence Swift, she had been chaperoning was called home due to her family’s financial losses in the panic of 1857.  Maria would spend time with Collinwood and become friendly with the Herschels, an astronomical family of renown.  When leaving Collinwood, Maria was give a sheet of paper from Sir John Herschel’s aunt Caroline Hershel’s notebook – some of her astronomical calculations.  Maria treasured it all of her life, finally pasting what remained of it (the paper slowly became brittle and flaked away) into her own journal which the MMA still holds.


Shameless Self-Promotion


Well, it’s not “self” it’s Mitchell House and Maria Mitchell promotion.  Mitchell House and I have come (kicking and screaming?), into the 21st century.  Cognizant that we have to reach younger generations and those who are more technologically savvy, we have been working to connect.  We blog every week (sometimes more), our blogs get Tweeted out, we have a Pinterest page, and now, (drum roll please), we are on YouTube.  I may not be looking too sweet, but Mitchell House has on it new coat of shingles on the south side, its gardens are revived, and it has undergone some wonderful conservation work of structure and artifacts too, over the last decade or so.  So, it is putting its best foot forward.

Over the next few weeks, with the enormous help of my colleague, MMA’s Director of Natural Sciences, Andrew McKenna-Foster (cameraman, editor, and YouTuber), Mitchell House will be rolling out some short YouTube videos ( ) − with more to come over time – about Maria Mitchell, the Mitchells, the Mitchell House, island architecture, Quakers, and Nantucket women.  So, you, those from afar, and others can learn a little more about the topics that are relevant to the mission of the Mitchell House and the legacy of Maria Mitchell.  Unfortunately, you will have to see me but, I hope you learn a bit more about the House, Maria, the marvelous Mitchells and the island we call home.



We have not had a killing frost here yet but the last few nights have been enough to start to put a damper on the more fragile plants.  For the Mitchell House it means the nasturtiums and morning glories.  Last week I was able to snap a few images of them still at full glory (excuse the pun).  Peleg Mitchell Junior, Maria Mitchell’s uncle who purchased 1 Vestal Street after the William Mitchell family moved to the Pacific Bank, and his wife Mary had nasturtiums all around “Neighbor North” – their outhouse in the north part of the backyard. 

Check out the bees in the morning glories and how covered they are with pollen!