Maria Mitchell’s Attic
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.”

http://www.nantucketchronicle.com/soundings/nantucket-nation-nantucket

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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!

JNLF

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?

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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!!)

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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.

JNLF